Poverty in America

In January, the Commonwealth Fund released a study with disturbing results, revealing a shadow over America that too few are aware of. Since 1999, death rates have increased among middle-aged Caucasian Americans. Although this trend is exacerbated by increasing rates of drug overdose, alcohol abuse, and suicide, the full cause of this disturbing trend likely involves failures in the medical system as well as profound changes in the economy. Those states showing the worst trends have high rates of poverty as well as some of the highest rates of smoking and obesity in the country. They also historically have had among the weakest healthcare systems, with high rates of people lacking insurance and poor access to medical care.

The healthcare shortcomings may be addressed in some states by the Affordable Care Act.  Some states have expanded their Medicaid programs, but the remaining states with the biggest health gaps continue to resist the law and do not guarantee health coverage.

The economic situation is probably more intractable. The people mostly affected by this trend live in the South, are not college-educated, are unemployed or low-income, and do not have health insurance. I and others believe that many of these folks are simply overwhelmed by their economic difficulties, and turn to drink and/or drugs, or just kill themselves outright.

But for working-age whites—especially 45-to-54-year-olds—we are witnessing regression that has little precedent in the industrialized world over the past half-century. Working-age, non-Hispanic whites make up 39 percent of the U.S. population. Reversing their current mortality trend should be an urgent priority, as should reducing other health disparities associated with race and income.

What are we doing to our workforce? Not everyone can be a “manager”, and not everyone can complete a college degree. We must find ways to help people fit in and contribute to society and have fulfilling lives. We do need everyone, not just “managers”. There still is physical work that needs to be done, and we shall all suffer if it isn’t. Why is it we must denigrate laborers so, and relegate them to impoverished, insecure lives?

But the problem runs deeper than that. Our educational system is a failure; people simply are not prepared for adult life. Our children are shown dreadful examples of adulthood, and their schooling does not ensure competence in basic skills. I believe that there is a great rift in our values as well, and we are all suffering from the resulting dysfunctional society. Many young people are in despair, and with good reason. The suffering of these middle-aged working-class people is just the first wave of a more total collapse that can happen if we continue to go on as we have been.

I’d like to provide you with an example of this. This link takes you to a story about a woman who tried to retire just as the economy collapsed, and has since been living in a camper and traveling to do seasonal work. She is living as too many elderly live now, because we have no real social safety net for anyone. This serves as a cautionary tale for our country; how can we consider ourselves civilized when we allow this to happen to so very many people? We need to consider what our society might look like if we engaged compassion rather than capitalism.

 

Copyright © 2016 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.

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