I’ve just returned from a Transformational Leadership Council conference in New Orleans. Although I had a wonderful time and celebrated my birthday surrounded by friends and the Big Easy’s Dixieland music, I have to say that I was shocked by what I saw and read while I was there.
During our visit, we drove around some of the areas that had been hit by Hurricane Katrina. Naturally, I was disturbed by the devastation still apparent in some quarters, which the richest country in the world had not rebuilt more than five years after the disaster. Nevertheless, that was not the main source of my alarm. What shocked me most was the nature of my country’s statistics these days.
While I was there, USA Today published an editorial about the state of today’s American children, in raw numbers, which were so bad that the newspaper had to keep reiterating that the figures were not misprints:
• One-third of American students either drop out or don’t finish high school.
• Three-quarters of all American children are ineligible for military service for one reason or another: poor health, drug-taking, criminal records or low level of education
• Twenty-three per cent of all young people who try to enlist in the services fail the basic entrance exam
• One third of all children are either overweight or obese
• Forty-one per cent of American children are born out of wedlock (nope, not a misprint). This includes:
• 73 per cent of black children
• 53 per cent of Hispanic children
• 29 per cent non-Hispanic white children.
I then had a look at Time magazine’s statistics on gun violence, in the wake of the Arizona shooting. In any given year:
• More than 100,000 Americans are shot in murders, assaults, suicides or accidents or by police intervention
• 31,224 people die from gun violence
• 12,632 people are murdered
• 17,352 people kill themselves
• 3,067 children and teenagers die from gun violence.
This translates into 268 people who are shot for any reason every single day.
Many pundits on both the left and right have been quick to finger the obvious suspects, whether lack of marriage (the right) or poverty (the left). Creating and sustaining commitments in relationships, fighting poverty, cracking down on guns and improving schools are all definitely to be applauded. But they are only part of the problem.
The death of American society
The real problem with America, as indeed most of the nations in the west, is that it is no longer a country, in the sense of a cohesive society.
Increasingly it is fragmenting into enclaves of the very wealthy and the very poor, in which the driving force is every man, woman and child for himself. Indeed, I recently came across a gated community, nestled behind an elaborate front gate, which has unapologetically labeled itself ‘The Enclave.’
In this polarized situation, everyone suffers, billionaire and single mother alike. Two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, spent more than thirty years painstakingly examining why certain human societies live longer and healthier than others, the results of which are contained in their remarkable book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.
After researching the social conditions of virtually every Western country, Wilkinson and Pickett discovered an astonishing statistic: the more unfair a society—which is to say, the more economically unfair and hierarchical—the worse off everyone is, both rich and poor, in terms of virtually every social problem.
In countries with great income disparity between the very rich and the very poor, both the most affluent and the very poorest suffer from higher rates of ill health, crime, mental illness, environmental problems, and violence.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and many countries in Europe, with their vast differences between rich and poor, are among the worst off in virtually every social indicator compared with countries like Japan and Sweden, which have less wealth disparity in the population.
Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world with half the world’s billionaires, America has far and away the highest level of all social problems—crime, lack of education, mental illness, suicide, disease of all varieties, and the United Kingdom has the third highest.
Although one in every thirty-nine Americans is a millionaire, one in seven, or 39.1 million Americans, live below the poverty line.
One quarter of American have been diagnosed with mental illness—the highest percentage among the most advanced developed countries—compared to less than one in ten in Germany, Japan, and Spain.
Although the United States spends nearly half the entire world’s expenditure on health for only 5 per cent of the world’s population, a baby born in the U..S has a 40 per cent higher risk of dying during its first year than a baby born in Greece. Greece is one of the poorest countries in Europe, where the population makes half as much on average and the country spends half as much on health care, as the U.S.
Furthermore, that Greek baby can expect to live 1.2 years longer than the American.
Fairness indicators have nothing to do with the amount of public and governmental expenditure that aims to redistribute wealth and equalize society. For instance, New Hampshire has the lowest levels of social problems in the whole U.S., and it also has one of the lowest public expenditures of any state. New Hampshire simply does not have a huge disparity between the income of its richest and poorest inhabitants.
We have lost the very basis of our society, established from our pioneer days and often referred to as the ‘wagon train morality’. It was the promise not to leave any bodies behind.
The U.S. newspapers were also reporting on the American politicians who have been attempting to score cheap points in Congress by reading out the American Constitution. We might all do well to study it carefully, particularly the first line. America, and indeed many countries, can only see its way out of its current mess by embracing a larger definition of ‘we’ to mean what it originally meant: all the people.
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