July 4, 2016

Murica in 2016

America sunglassesToday is 'Murica Day, and if you aren't celebrating it, you can "giiiit out" (if you are not a South Park fan, the clip at the bottom of the post provides the context for that reference). I wasn't planning on writing anything new today. I'm still not feeling great, although I think I'm through the worst of the fever. But I found myself thinking back to the small American town where I grew up and one of the many interesting things it taught me about 'Murica all those years ago.

Every town in America I have visited with a population of more than 20,000 people has at least one easily recognizable "bad part of town." This seems to be the case not only for major cities but also for much smaller towns. The bad part(s) of town are where those who have significantly less money than average live. These parts of town look different. The residences are older, the infrastructure is sometimes neglected, and upkeep often looks like it has not been a priority. The crime rate in these areas is often higher, and even when it isn't, the perception around town is almost certainly that it is. People who do not live in these parts of town tend to avoid them.

I don't recall how old I was when I asked my parents the questions most parents must dread. "Why do some people live in [rich neighborhood] and others live in [bad part of town]?" There answers did not seem to come easily, nor did they make much sense to me. "Why are people poor?" "Is that why we don't live in [rich neighborhood]? Are we poor?"

When we drive by the big new house in the rich neighborhood, we may think something like this:
Wow! That family must have worked really hard to get where they are. I bet they are well-educated and have the sort of high-power job where they have lots of responsibility and many others count on them. They've probably invested countless hours to get where they are, and they deserve their success. It is great that we live in a country where success like theirs is rewarded. Maybe if I work hard enough, I'll get to live like that someday.
At least, this seems to be the sort of reaction our culture suggests we should have. We aren't supposed to consider any of the other possibilities. Maybe one or more of the people who live here earned their money by exploiting others. Maybe one or more of the people who live here benefited from family money, may have done next to nothing to earn anything, and may be what most of us would rightfully regard as a moron. No, we're supposed to equate wealth with hard work and to believe that we too can achieve it through our own hard work because...'Murica.

And how about when we get up the nerve to drive through the "bad part" of town, not after dark, of course? We don't like to admit it, but the sort of thing our culture encourages us to think about the people who live in this neighborhood and why is a bit different.
The people who live here may have had their share of hardships, but they are only here because they aren't willing to work hard enough. Others have managed to pull themselves out of poverty, so these people had the chance to do the same. They probably have low-level jobs that aren't particularly valued because anybody could do them. Since not much skill is required, it is no surprise that the pay is low. Some of the people who live here are probably just lazy. If I don't work hard, I could end up here too.
We don't like to consider the other explanations for poverty. We don't want to admit that equal opportunity is still elusive and that someone who is born into a wealthy family is going to have opportunities that simply aren't there for those born into poverty. We also don't want to recognize how fragile middle class status is today in America. For many middle class American families, one significant healthcare crisis is all it would take to lose it. We don't bother to think that some of the people in this neighborhood might be here because one of their children got sick.

One of the things I've always been thankful for is that I never managed to buy in to the cultural narrative about the "bad parts" of town. The fact that some of my good friends lived in these parts of town and I visited them there (during the daytime and at night) helped me see through it. I'd discover that many of the people who lived in these parts of town worked their butts off to make ends meet. Claiming that they could earn enough money to move out if only they worked harder was absurd. I'd also learn that many of the reasons people might end up here (e.g., disability, unemployment, outrageous healthcare costs) were not under their control. But most of all, I'd learn that these were decent people who were trying to do the best they could with what they had. They had the same hopes and dreams as anybody else, and regardless of their ethnicity or country of origin, they were as American as I was.

I think it says something about us as a people that we have become so tolerant of the glaringly obvious wealth disparity that exists in our nation today. We all know where the "bad parts" of town are, and we are generally content to avoid them. Bringing this issue to the forefront of the minds of many Americans, however briefly, was one of the most important contributions of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. I hope it will not be forgotten.

But as important as raising the issue of income inequality is, I find something else even more concerning: the manner in which many have constructed a narrative excusing it (e.g., wealth is indicative of hard work; poverty is indicative of laziness) and ultimately blaming the poor for their poverty. This narrative has been a central theme in the Republican Party for some time, and it is truly shameful. I suppose my hope for this 'Murica Day is that the power of this narrative will be less with every successive year. Even if the American Dream seems dead and we cannot agree on how best to deal with poverty, could we at least learn to stop demonizing the poor.


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