Failures of a Developed Country

To add to a previous paper I wrote concerning the domination inherent in the ideologies of the American Dream and the Working Class promise, I offer an examination of how the United States compares to other countries in regard to key human rights outlined in the Millennium Development Goals. I will demonstrate how the paradox of the American Dream and Working Class Promise ideologies is reflected in the failures of the U.S., as a so called developed country, to secure such basic human rights for its own citizens.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, have the stated purpose of diminishing poverty in the world through, among other goals, “eradicating extreme poverty and hunger” and “achiev[ing] universal primary education.”[1] The United States has explicitly acknowledged its commitment “to supporting broad-based and sustainable economic development, including making the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) America’s goals.”[2] The United States has committed to making the MDG’s a platform for achieving sustainable economic development in so called undeveloped countries. The question arises, what is considered an undeveloped country? One criterion the UN uses to determine if a country is developed is a “Human Assets Index.”[3] This index has four components: “percentage of population undernourished,” “mortality rate of children aged five years or under,” “gross secondary school enrollment ratio,” and “adult literacy rate.”[4] The common theme behind these four components is poverty, with the by products of gross income inequality, social inequality and social immobility. Regarding income inequality, the U.S. is “ranked 44th out of 86 countries, well below every other developed society measured;” “it is at the bottom end of the developed world.”[5] The U.S. ranks lower than some so called undeveloped countries in Asia and Africa.[6] Granted income inequality does not exist in countries where everyone shares the poverty equally, but this is not the point. The point is that in a country that proclaims to be a bastion of development and the realization of ideologies such as the AD and the WCP, there should be minimal inequality at best.

Regarding undernourishment in the U.S., the UN Millennium Development Goals Database has no data for the U.S.[7] However, a UNICEF report notes that of all of the so called developed countries, “In only two countries are more than 20% of children living in relative poverty – Romania and the United States.”[8] To clarify this point, relative poverty is measured as a relation between members within one country, however, the report asserts “there is nothing either misleading or meaningless about the statement that a greater proportion of children are allowed to fall significantly below the norms of their societies in the United States than in the Czech Republic.”[9] Poverty as deprivation was measured along with relative poverty.[10] Deprivation is considered not being able to afford such things as “Internet connection, new clothes, three daily meals, two pairs of properly fitting shoes,” but “The U.S. did not have enough data for a [deprivation] rating.”[11] Despite the absence of a deprivation rating for the U.S., food insecurity statistics for the U.S. are available. Statistics show that “In 2012, 49.0 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.”[12] What the statistics show is that for a developed country, the U.S. faces serious problems with poverty that leads to food insecurity, which then leads to undernourishment.

Regarding primary and secondary school enrollments, there is an established connection between poverty, food insecurity and education. Ultimately, the MGD associated with primary school attendance and the Human Assets Index associated with secondary school enrollment all aim at the same goal, namely a quality education that precipitates a reduction in poverty. Areas of high poverty also have schools that are impoverished. Children who live in poverty, who face hunger frequently and whose only option is an impoverished school, are not going to be able to obtain an education that is going to advance them out of poverty. Children who are unable to obtain a quality education grow into uneducated adults and uneducated adults are more likely to suffer from poverty. In just one example, the child poverty rate in Philadelphia is near 40%.[13] Regarding food insecurity’s effects on a child’s education, Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University’s School of Public Health asserts “They can’t concentrate as well, and children who are food insecure don’t perform as well on math and language arts tests. They don’t do as well in school.”[14]

Furthermore, if a the goal of primary and secondary school enrollments is to receive a quality education and a quality education is one of the criteria for a developed country, then the U.S. seems to be lacking in this area as well. Granted the definition of “quality education” could be debated, but one way to measure if a country is providing its citizens with such an education is to compare the citizens’ educational assessment scores with other countries. Additionally, if education is key to precipitating reductions in poverty, and if the citizens’ educational assessment scores are lower than other countries, then this ought to sound an alert to problems with current or future poverty levels in the country. According to a 2012 Program for International Student Assessment study, of sixty-five developed countries, the U.S. ranks 30th in mathematics, 20th in reading, and 23rd in science, all of which are unchanged since a 2003 study.[15] According to the report, “The U.S. was slotted between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania in the overall results, two spots behind Russia.”[16]

Adult literacy is one of the components of the Human Assets Index, where higher percentages of adult literacy would be a criterion to be considered a developed country. Recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted the OECD Skills Outlook 2013 Survey of Adult Skills.[17] The study found that “The U.S. ranked 16th out of 23 [developed] countries in literacy proficiency, 21st in numeracy proficiency, and 14th in problem solving in technology-rich environments.”[18] Additionally, the study found that “One in six adults in the U.S. scored below level two of five total levels for literacy skills.”[19] The study focused on so called developed countries, however, if adult literacy is one of the criteria by which to judge if a country is developed and the U.S. is near the bottom of the adult literacy list, then it appears as if the U.S. is just barely a developed country, at least in this regard.

The point of comparing the U.S. to other countries is not to invoke competition with the rest of the world out of some sense of misguided patriotism. The point is to, as Michael Minch so aptly said while discussing the issues raised in this paper with me, bring to light the irony of the situation. Gross income inequality, social inequality and social immobility are facts of American life. The ideologies of the American Dream and the Working Class promise are paradoxical in that the more the ideologies are believed, the less likely the values of equality and mobility are going to be realized. Equality and mobility are necessary for sustainable economic development in that poverty arises and is exacerbated where inequality and immobility exist. The belief in the American Dream and Working Class Promise ideologies by justifying inequality and immobility threatens sustainable economic development. The irony is that these ideologies prop up the U.S. as a bastion of sustainable economic development when evidence shows that the U.S. is much less developed, and in many important ways, than so many other countries traditionally seen as less developed than the U.S.


[1] United Nations, “We Can End Poverty,” Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/bkgd.shtml

[2] U.S. State Department, “Poverty & Development,” United States Mission to the United Nations, accessed February 9, 2014, http://usun.state.gov/issues/c31167.htm

[3] United Nations, “LDC Information: The Criteria for Identifying Least Developed Countries,” DESA – Development Policy and Analysis Division, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/cdp/ldc/ldc_criteria.shtml#hai

[4] Ibid. Of these criteria, mortality of children under five years will not be addressed because while incredibly important, the other three factors are more directly related to inequality and immobility.

[5] Max Fisher, “Map: How the World’s Countries Compare on Income Inequality (the U.S. Ranks Below Nigeria),” The Washington Post, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/09/27/map-how-the-worlds-countries-compare-on-income-inequality-the-u-s-ranks-below-nigeria/

[6] Ibid.

[7] United Nations, “Population Undernourished, Percentage,” UNDATA: A World of Information, accessed February 9, 2014, http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=MDG&f=seriesRowID%3A566

[8] UNICEF, Measuring Child Poverty: New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries, p. 7, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc10_eng.pdf

[9] Ibid, p. 15.

[10] Saki Knafo, “U.S. Child Poverty Second Highest Among Developed Nations: Report,” Huffington Post, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/us-child-poverty-report-unicef_n_1555533.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] Feeding America, “Hunger & Poverty Statistics,” Hunger Facts, accessed February 9, 2014, http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/hunger-and-poverty-statistics.aspx

[13] Eric Westervelt, “Unrelenting Poverty Leads to ‘Desperation’ in Philly Schools,” National Public Radio, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2013/11/21/246413432/weighing-the-role-of-poverty-in-philadelphia-s-schools

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bill Chappell, “U.S. Students Slide in Global Ranking on Math, Reading, Science,” National Public Radio, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/12/03/248329823/u-s-high-school-students-slide-in-math-reading-science

[16] Ibid.

[17] Megan Rogers, “Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy,” Insider Higher Ed, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/10/08/us-adults-rank-below-average-global-survey-basic-education-skills

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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Response to Cheyney Ryan: The Visionary and the Pragmatic

The shared themes throughout this conference have focused on equality, common values, rights and social movements. My presentation is a humble attempt to incorporate these themes into the question of how to merge the visionary with the pragmatic in social movements as identified by Cheyney Ryan. Cheyney has offered the insight that successful social movements are able to merge the visionary with the pragmatic, which is remarkable because the two are in conflict. A question raised is how it is possible to merge the visionary with the pragmatic. My suggestion is that the vision itself needs to become pragmatic. It needs to be defined in such a way that puts it into a pragmatic context  so that people can see the vision in everyday events. It needs to be the abstract that is reducible to conceptualization in the particulars.

A movement needs to expand and move beyond the oppressed group. To do so, it needs a vision, an abstract, shared, universal concept of a good or right that reaches across humanity. This vision, by being shared, can be seen in every person’s life. If we can see how this vision relates to our existence in a system of social relations, then we can see the specific areas in these relations where this vision is being fulfilled and where it is not. From this point, we have a guide to what actions we can take in our everyday lives to make this vision a reality.

The vision also needs to be defined in such a way as to de-other the oppressed group. The process of othering always occurs in oppression. It is a dehumanizing process that focuses on difference as a negative that negates humanity instead of a positive that adds to humanity. The vision made pragmatic shows by itself how difference is not negation. By understanding the vision de-othering occurs and the vision itself becomes pragmatic.

The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement, are very successful social movements. What all these movements share is their ability to gain the support of people outside the oppressed group. Gaining the support of people outside the oppressed group should be a pragmatic goal. How? By making the vision pragmatic.

A suggestion for how to define a vision could be: As human beings who share the same basic wants and needs with the rest of humanity, we have the right to have the same choice of life opportunities as white, straight, males, without the fear of reprisals.

This is an abstract vision that makes itself pragmatic by its ability to be conceptualized in the particulars of everyday existence and by de-othering the oppressed group. By understanding the concept, not just the meaning of the words strung together, one understands the appropriate individual pragmatic response.

A friend told me, and this was before gay marriage in Utah, before civil unions and before anti-discrimination legislation for homosexuals, that as a gay man he had 1,526 less rights than a heterosexual. It was as if he was telling me: As a human being who shares the same basic wants and needs with the rest of humanity, he has the right to have the same choice of life opportunities as white, straight, males, without the fear of reprisals.

The utility of his comment was that by me understanding the vision, he gained the support of one more person who now votes for his cause, petitions for his cause, protests for his cause, writes letters for his cause and goes to conferences to talk about his cause.

In conclusion, the vision made pragmatic can merge the visionary with pragmatic in a such a way as to enact positive social change through social movements.