Imagine that you're part of a new country, struggling to make ends meet. Your citizens work hard to grow enough food for everyone. Laborers and manufacturers trade their wares for food and farmers barter for the tools they need to continue producing. If you become sick, your neighbors pitch in to help. They bring over food and medicine, maybe take care of your kids for a bit until you get better. Your community is strong.
As your country begins to mature and you become better and smarter at growing food and making roads and building houses and preventing illnesses, you have the luxury of thinking about the future. You begin to teach your children to read. You invest in health and medicine so your population is healthy and productive. You invest in technology and infrastructure so commerce can continue to expand. You dream of success – a place where everyone has shoes, food, a roof over their heads, and opportunities for the future.
Hundreds of years later, you are considered a developed country. But instead of continuing to invest in each other and our futures to ensure the success of our community and country, we begin hoarding our cash, happy with our success. "Everyone has enough," we say. But do they?
This year alone, we're cutting the food stamp program by $5 billion. This will affect 47 million neighbors, 22 million of whom are children. No more chicken soup for you.
And we need more chicken soup! Overall, the health of our citizens has declined significantly over the past 20 years. From 1990 to 2010, the U.S. fell from ranking number 18 among wealthy nations to the 27th spot in terms of early deaths. Life expectancy at birth dropped from the 20th to 27th, while healthy life expectancy fell from 14th to the 26th ranking.*
Illness and chronic disability account for nearly half of U.S. health burdens. The leading risk factors are unhealthy eating, tobacco smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar (a risk factor for diabetes), physical inactivity and alcohol drinking. In short, our overindulgence is doing us in.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. public education system was the envy of many countries. "What wealth, what privilege they must have to be able to send all their children to school every day!"
Last fall, American teens scored below the international average in math and roughly average in science and reading, compared against dozens of other countries that participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Vietnam, still considered to be a jungly, unsophisticated outpost to many, had a higher average score in math and science than the United States. Students in Shanghai ranked best in the world, and students in East Asian countries came out on top, nabbing seven of the top 10 places across all three subjects.**
The numbers are even more sobering when compared among only the 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. The United States ranked 26th in math — trailing nations such as Slovakia, Portugal and Russia. (Ironically, most Americans can’t find Slovakia on a map.) American high school students dropped to 21st in science (from 17th in 2009) and slipped to 17th in reading (from 14th in 2009).
We have great schools and teachers and smart children, and we're spending gazillions of dollars on public, private and college educations. These numbers are really depressing. Where are we going wrong here?
When we were a developing country, we spent a lot of money on infrastructure. We knew that we needed passable roads and bridges, decent water to drink, and some serious plumbing to continue progressing from the little farm country we started. But today, our infrastructure is literally crumbling.
Once every four years, America’s civil engineers provide a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s major infrastructure categories in ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure (Report Card). Using simple A-F report card, an Advisory Council of ASCE members assigns grades for categories including aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks and recreation, railways, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and wastewater.***
Since 1998, the grades have been near failing, averaging only Ds. The assessors site delayed maintenance and underinvestment as the causes across most categories. For the brave, you can read the full report here: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/a/#p/home.
So what's the plan? Are we no longer going to bring food and medicine over to the neighbor who is sick or injured? Are we going to leave their kids to fend for themselves? (One of every 45 children in this country will be homeless some time this year.) Are we waiting for the bridges to fall and the levees to break before doing something about fixing them? Seems awfully foolish to me.
Maybe we don't care at all anymore about the community and country we started to build. Maybe our success has made us so self-absorbed that the success or failure of Americans as a group doesn't matter to our leaders. In a global economy, does "country" really even matter? Does "community" matter?
I think it does. Watch any end-of-the-world movie and you'll see humans banding together in reformed communities against the aliens or zombies or vampires. Same thing with natural disasters. No one cares about protecting their money or possessions. They just want to survive – to live to see another day.
What will it take to shake us from our complacent isolationism? What needs to happen before we are inspired to come together to address the serious issues in front of us?
We're supposedly the leaders of the free world – an honor we continue to bestow upon ourselves despite the evidence. I'd like to see us begin to act like leaders again this year, act like pioneers with dreams of a better future. Let's show people that we're smart and capable, reasonable and calm. Let's stop thinking about the short term and begin shoring up a foundation for the future.
Let's remember that we're Americans – all from the same community – all on the same team. Let's become the country we envisioned so long ago.