Especially in the media, America is posited as a champion and world leader of democratic values. America is touted as the land of opportunity and as a wealthy country that promotes human rights, education, equality, and a high standard of living for all citizens. However, upon examining falling U.S. statistics, there is doubt that this is actually the case. The concept of American exceptionalism saturates the media, instilling and cultivating the ideal firmly into the hearts and minds of the global community. People from around the world arrive in America in search of wealth and opportunity, only to find that the seeming abundance of America is not afforded to everyone equally. With rising gaps in income equality, slips in global ranking in education, and overflowing prisons, America may not be best place in the world to live.
The income gap between the very rich and very poor in America is staggering, and continues to worsen. Real wage levels have dropped for half of all Americans since 1980 and any gains that have occurred have accumulated among the top 5 percent of incomes. This is particularly true with the top 1 percent, which currently controls 95 percent of the total income of the country (Collins and Yeskel 6-7). Despite the widening income gap between “haves” and “have nots”, the ideology of American success is so pervasive that spending on cars, electronics, and houses continues, along with rising debt (Collins and Yeskel 7). With rising personal debt and the American economy, and less security in terms of health insurance and retirement, Americans face an increasingly uncertain future.
The income inequality of America is of serious concern, since as general insecurity rises in terms of savings and retirement, aging populations become a larger burden on society, which affects all citizens. Living in a state with great income disparity translates to more health problems, while states with lower income inequality enjoy the opposite (Collins and Yeskel 29). Without the household income to afford health care and a lack of employers who wish to provide it to employees, a single traumatic injury or illness could spell economic doom for a family. Collins and Yeskel indicated, “This makes the United States the only industrialized nation that views health care as a privilege, not a basic human right” (17). Between widening income inequality and income insecurity that puts American families at daily risk, America’s self-professed wealth is not all it seems.
In terms of education, America has fallen behind other countries as well. Not just in terms of scores, but also as an ideology. Sorrel asserted, “…the school system has been invaded by psychology-conditioning programs which not only take up time…but also promote an emotionalized and anti-intellectual way of responding to the challenges facing every individual...” (2). American public schools pay teachers extremely poorly and squander resources on other educational necessities, like administration (Henwood and Featherstone 63). Additionally, economic resources towards public schools seem to be less to blame than what may be assumed. Sorrel went on to say about a Brookings Institution study concerning money towards public education, “When other highly relevant factors are taken into account, economic resources are unrelated to student achievement” (15). In this way, American public education is undermining student’s real education in lieu of short-term emotional feedback, and spending less on teachers and student education than on administration and other less important issues.
The U.S. spends a great deal on education while settling for low results. Henwood and Featherstone compared the American public education system to the health care system, lamenting how money flows in, but hardly anything flows back out (62). In terms of international scores in science and math, American students are underperforming compared to Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Canada (Hodgson 141). They also point out that frequent testing, which are a staple in U.S. public schools, hamper learning and do not provide meaningful results, despite this being the standard in which public schools receive funding and subsequently, prestige (Henwood and Featherstone 59). Rather, “benchmark” testing, such as entrance and exit exams as other countries’ public school systems perform, is a more effective and meaningful forms or evaluation for students. In fact, according to Henwood and Featherstone, no country in the world operates their public school system as the U.S., with “the punitive evaluations and the vendetta against ‘bad’ teachers” (68). All of this results in a less than ideal public school system, and yet another reason that America may not be the best country to live.
There is a great irony in America in its vast, overflowing prisons which seem to belie the famous American promise of freedom. In 1980, prison populations rose sharply to over 2 million people by 2006. Every year, over 6 thousand new prisoners enter the system with a recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent, which has only begun to decline in 2010 (Drucker 39-40). Although the term mass incarceration is typically reserved for political and/or social circumstances, such as genocide, oppression, etc., Drucker calls the American state of imprisonment “mass incarceration in a democratic society” and relates contemporary imprisonment to a disease (41-42). He goes on to point out that an expansion of the prison system necessarily translates to worse living conditions, with significant threats to the prisoner’s basic human rights (Drucker 41). With such a high recidivism rate, it is difficult to deny the self-perpetuation of the American prison system, which behaves like a disease being passed from one person to another, self-sustainingly (Drucker 42). With a historically unprecedented prison population, America seems less like the land of the free, rather, the home of the incarcerated.
Perhaps most importantly, is whether the mass incarceration in America is justified. When most people arrested and imprisoned are low-level drug offenders, it is difficult to agree with the size and scope of America’s prisons (Drucker 86). Additionally, a person is far more likely to be imprisoned and suffer a harsh sentence if they are a minority, which attests more to the social biases within the U.S. criminal punishment and justice system than to its efficiency. Thanks to structured sentencing and drug enforcement, U.S. prisons are bursting at the seams with low-level offenders, who many times have to abandon their families for years at a time (Drucker 106). Considering the large, long-term social toll on low-level offender’s families, including minor children who often end up in state programs after losing parental support, the massive incarceration in America hardly seems justified.
In the end, America does not appear to be the best country in which to live. Without a reliable balance of wealth and the poor education system, life in America is tentative and worrisome. If the U.S. would consider other international examples of income/wealth balance and public education, such as with Canada and Finland, there could be much improvement in the lives of the average citizen. In addition, the high prison population undermines the essential American concept of freedom, limits productivity, and is a heavy burden on taxpayers.
Collins, Chuck, and Felice Yeskel. Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity. New York: New Press:, 2011. Print.
Drucker, Ernest. A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. New York: New Press:, 2011. Print.
Henwood, Doug, and Liza Featherstone. "Marketizing Schools." Monthly Review, vol. 65 no. 2, 2013, pp. 58-70. ProQuest Central.
Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.
Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas. New York: Free Press; 2010. Print.
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