Wouldn’t it be awful to live in one of those countries where arrest and jail are a constant threat, where the crime rate is far above the average of developed democratic nations, where infant and maternal mortality are scandalously high, where life expectancy and literacy lag behind the leading nations of the world, where the gap between rich and poor disrupts the economy and even triggers violence in the streets?
And wouldn’t it be even worse if that country’s citizens did not realize their plight? If they blindly accepted their condition as “normal,” or even inevitable? If they did not demand or even expect any improvement?
Well, my dear reader, as awful as this sounds, it actually might describe your own country--if you live in the United States. But most Americans ignore their country’s true condition most of the time--until something explodes.
A year ago this month, a college classmate was visiting Boston, and over lunch she recounted her recent travels with her husband to various parts of the United States. Three or four times her story was punctuated by an episode of petty crime: and attempted mugging at an ATM, a snatched purse or picked pocket, a stolen credit card. These events clearly marred their travel memories.
As we returned to the car, she commented, “I hope you won’t be offended if I say this. But sometimes I feel like the U.S. is becoming a third world country.”
My reply caught her by surprise. “I’m not offended at all,” I said. “In fact, I think you’re quite right, except that ‘becoming’ is too kind. In my view, the U.S. has been like a third world country for many years now.”
If this seems farfetched or shocking to you, be a bit patient while I explain.
When people say “first world,” they are generally thinking of western nations in Europe and North America, plus economically advanced countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, South Korea, and Chile.
The term “third world” labels countries that are mostly poorer and less developed, especially in the southern hemisphere: Africa, Latin America, the Middle East. The difference is not simply geographic, it is economic and cultural. But whatever reasons people have for attaching these labels, they have the effect of lumping certain countries together in people’s minds. So Japan seems to belong with England, and Bangladesh seems to belong with Haiti. Thus these terms create strange bedfellows.
But the strangest combinations of all come when one looks at the facts of American Life in a global perspective. It does not take much research to realize that we often keep unexpected company.
As summer winds down, many “first world” workers are completing vacation time that they receive as a job benefit guaranteed by law. Such vacation time varies from several weeks per year in France to several days per year in China and Japan. But American workers stand alone, for the U.S. is the only first world nation that guarantees no legal vacation. The result: many poorer Americans get no vacation at all.
But the U.S. does rank ahead of other nations in a number of negative categories.
We have the highest incarceration rate in the world (760 imprisoned per 100,000 population) and more people in jail than any other country (2,310,984 by the end of 2007). That is ¼ all the prisoners in the world. Yes, you read that right: 25% of the entire planet. We also have the most private firearms and the largest external debt.
In many other areas we are not alone--but we are in very surprising company. (I relied on data from the CIA World Factbooks for 2010 and 2013, the UN, and Global Finance Magazine).
Among the world’s most dangerous cities, for example, Washington, DC--our nation’s capital!--ranks #5 in the world, a little better than Mogadishu but worse than Rio.
In overall healthcare, the U.S. ranks #38, behind Costa Rica and just ahead of Slovenia.
In infant mortality, the U.S. comes in at #50, just behind the Faroe Islands and just ahead of Croatia.
Our rank for maternal mortality is even worse: the U.S. is #136 in the world, between Iran and Hungary.
In overall life expectancy, the U.S. ranks #53, just ahead of Bahrain but worse than Taiwan.
In overall life expectancy, the U.S. ranks #53, just ahead of Bahrain but worse than Taiwan.
Then there are economic disparities, which have emerged as major discontents behind the current troubles in Ferguson, Missouri.
In income inequality, for example, the U.S. ranks #41, better than the Philippines but worse than Uruguay. In income distribution, we rank #80, behind Nicaragua and just ahead of Morocco. In income shared by the top 10% of the population, the U.S. comes in #64, between Iran and Liberia.
Notice that in none of these quality-of-life measures does the United States come even close to the top 10. And we never rank near our “peer” nations in Europe or Asia. The same is true for our rankings in literacy and education. In fact, our neighbors in all these rankings are the very countries people generally think of as “third world.”
It is no great surprise to me, then, that American society is prone to volatile outbreaks like the one in Ferguson. We have the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and we like to say we have the freest one. But the hard data reveals another truth: ordinary people in many other countries live better than ordinary Americans. No wonder we are not a contented people. Our low rankings breed trouble--call it rank disorder.
All this depressing data begs two questions: why does the U.S. lag behind its peers? And what can be done about it? Or are we resigned to our “third world” status as normal or even inevitable?
I believe much of our problem lies in the wide public acceptance--indeed, it is virtually a civic consensus—of a woefully, perhaps even criminally, inadequate concept of human rights. If so, the U.S. urgently needs a broader vision of human rights as well as a commitment to secure them for all our citizens. Only this will promote a better life.
I have long believed that the human rights vision embraced by modern Catholic Social Teaching offers much brighter prospects for a happier, more peaceful social order than the vision that prevails in the U.S. As I have written elsewhere:
It was my wife who reminded me that seeing faith as an antidote to hate, fear, and division was what got me into church work first place, nearly 40 years ago. In today’s Church (divided by the cultural wars and rent by scandal) that may seem a laughable choice, but the fact is I was not alone. The civil rights movement was largely faith-based, and its greatest leader was a preacher. The peace movement had important Catholic actors like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigans. Community organizers in Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere discovered that, while many secular activists disappeared when their cause ended, church congregations provided a more stable support base for long-term social missions.
A simple comparison shows how different the Catholic vision is. The simple fact is that Catholic Social Teaching lists many human rights at current U.S. law does not even recognize.
The American list of human rights is largely found in the U.S. constitution and subsequent amendments and Supreme Court decisions. The list consists mainly of legal and civil rights: free speech, voting rights, the right to avoid self incrimination, the right to a fair trial, etc. Mostly these entail rights we enjoyed because the government cannot infringe on them.
But the human rights list of Catholic Social Teaching goes much further to include economic and social rights we will not enjoy simply because the government keeps out of our way.
These include: the right to food and shelter; the right to education; the right to employment at a fair wage with reasonable benefits; the right to decent housing; the right to healthcare.
Framing this list is several principles that should guide specific social policies. The first of these is a focus on the poor and vulnerable: “The basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.” This includes a priority concern for the marginalized, persons with disabilities, the elderly, the terminally ill, victims of injustice and prescient, and particularly the poor.
The second principle is the importance of a humane economy: “the economy should serve people, not the other way around.” It has been more than 30 years since John–Paul II taught that in any conflict between “labor” (people) and “capital” (money), people must come first.
(One may reasonably ask how many of Ferguson’s young people believe that describes the U.S. economy.)
The third principle is “solidarity”--the attitude that recognizes one human family and sees those in needs as our neighbors, to be supported and cared for.
Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that in the coming year’s American leaders were to champion Catholic Social Teaching’s longer list of human rights - - not because the list is “Catholic,” but because those rights are right. Suppose the U.S. puts more focus on the vulnerable and marginalized. Suppose people get a living wage and some vacation. Suppose our leaders promote a more humane economy, and suppose our leaders--political, civic, religious, and cultural--inspire a spirit of solidarity among all Americans.
If all that happens, I have no doubt the U.S. would rise through the ranks of the world’s nations and achieve the place of honor we think we deserve. The result? No more rank disorders. Instead, a more just and justly proud and peaceful land.© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2013