In the future, when historians and sociologists write about the defunct American experiment, they will have to see that, despite the rhetoric about freedom and equality, this immense country is a cesspool of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, anti-scientific obscurantism, ignorance and – above all – of gross economic inequality. What remains of the democratic dream is a plebiscitary system, almost without voters, subservient to the rich, imperial . These are facts: it only remains for posterity to assess whether the United States ever had a real hope of becoming what it had dreamed of being, or whether the system, founded on the blind violence of the powerful over the wretched (Native Americans, workers, non-Mitteleuropean immigrants) was not doomed to failure from the start .
Unable to reasonably administer the population, the elite has lost itself, because in this country it is not results that count, but individual success. The most practised sport, at all levels, is passing the buck, which manifests itself in absurd prosecutions of microwave companies that do not specify in big enough letters that, heated in the oven, cats die. Or that trespassing on a road construction site and falling into a pothole can have extremely harmful effects. On top of that, the legal system punishes poor people: thousands of homeless people are arrested for vagrancy, and kids caught behind the wheel with minor offences end up in jail because their parents don’t have the money for a fine or bail.
These are staggering figures: in 2021 there were 500,000 people in jail because they could not pay – a suicidal choice, because every prisoner costs money, prisons are private companies that aim to make a profit, the entire system costs the tax authorities $13.6 billion every year – a tax authority that only finances itself on paper, increasing the debts of citizens who have already become beggars, who have lost everything, even access to medical care . In the last thirty years, the gap between rich and poor has more than doubled .
To put it bluntly: in Europe, there are those who think that being poor means not being able to afford to buy what you want – a dress, a smartphone, a meal at a restaurant, a holiday. The Italian institute of statistics (ISTAT) defines ‘absolute poor’ by assessing the family situation and its costs, the age of its members (especially children and the elderly), the geographical area of residence, and by calculating the income and expenditure of each . In Western Europe, those who earn less (depending on the country) than 1250 € per month in the South and 1800 € in the North and Central Europe are considered destitute. In the United States, more than 11% of the population lives on less than €900 per month, and half of these have no income. Zero . They sleep in the streets, in ever-widening areas on the outskirts of cities, they live by their wits, they die of diseases that are eradicated elsewhere.
Of course, if we compare the inhabitants of the United States with those of much of sub-Saharan Africa, American poverty is less extreme. The US does not have widespread famine and children deformed by hunger and disease. However, analysts argue that the relevant comparison is with the rich countries (European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia), and then it becomes clear that the OECD figures show an America torn by the darkest misery.
The American economy has grown at a positive rate for decades, but almost exclusively for white Caucasians . According to the World Bank , 769 million people in the world lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013; they are the poorest in the world. Of these, 3.2 million live in the United States and 3.3 million in other high-income countries (most in Italy, Japan and Spain) . Dozens of OECD countries have substantially lower poverty levels than America: France, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland have less than half the number of poor people in the United States . This number of poor people is so large, it turns pity into a sense of threat and disgust.
The specificity of poverty in the United States
New York, spring 2022: over 77,00 people now live on pavements
Traditionally, in Western Europe, after the years of economic boom and post-war reconstruction, the majority of the homeless are immigrants. In the United States, by now, the overwhelming majority of the homeless are members of the middle class who, for one reason or another (redundancy, divorce, work injury, lack of pension support) have been squeezed out of the system. Once out of the system, one loses any right to citizenship, since American law has (always) sought to conceal the existence of poverty, to marginalise it, to make it invisible – even though by now one in three American citizens, if not living on the streets, lives in a trailer or in a slum on the outskirts of cities.
For the state, these are people guilty of a ‘crime against the quality of life’ . But their numbers are growing, despite the fact that laws enacted in recent years, in all states, prohibit camping, sitting or lying in the street, in a situation where no social support facilities are offered. America’s homeless, hampered by laws and society, live their condition with a deep sense of guilt, which turns into self-harm. In the country where 41% of the world’s rich live, 105 million people struggle to meet their most basic needs .
The collapse of the system began in the 1970s, due to the oil crises, the explosion of inflation and the automation of the manufacturing industry that, in some states, where a traditionally weak trade union has failed to build a social safety net for less skilled workers. Added to this was the increasing dumping on agricultural products, and the end of protective tariffs in the system. The axe has fallen with 21st century legislation: US law offers aid to the wealthiest in the form of massive tax cuts and concessions for the purchase of a first home .
The 400 richest families in the United States pay less tax than the middle class . The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act , enacted into law by President Trump in late 2017, punished blue-collar and casual workers. The United States today ‘has the tax system of a plutocracy’, say prominent economists such as Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman . Even the legal system is that of a plutocracy, as lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson explains: ‘We have a justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent’ .
Stevenson continues: ‘In the crucial question of whether you can keep a roof over your head, the recent history of evictions in the United States (now numbering in the millions every year) demonstrates this. It is the landlords, with the support of lawyers, who use the courts to evict the weaker tenants (90% of whom cannot afford a defence). And it is always the landlords who turn the myriad folds of the rules in their favour, in whose space lurk the most insidious ways to get rid of housing’. The social degradation of the defenceless is growing, more and more children are living on the streets: the homeless population is now largely made up of families and the fastest growing category of homeless is that of children: 2.5 million, one for every 30 minors . An alarm that so far has only been acknowledged by the Commission on Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Why does one become homeless?
Those who spend more than 32% of their income on rent lead to a faster increase in homelessness
The reasons for social exclusion are many. Of those ingrained in Americans’ consciousness, the most prevalent is mental illness: the privatisation of mental health care produced a spike in homelessness in the 1980s. In 2015, a quarter of homeless people suffered from severe mental disorders. A cause that goes hand in hand with drug addiction: more than a third of homeless shelter residents are on drugs or alcohol. But research goes beyond prejudice, and has found that the main reason for marginalisation is the cost and poor availability of housing. According to the report by the real estate group Zillow (2018), homelessness soars wherever people have to pay more than 32% of their income to rent . Poverty triggers a spiral of domestic violence, arrests, incarceration and evictions, leading to alcoholism, drug use and psychological distress .
Those who take drugs, in the US, are expelled from welfare programmes, are no longer entitled to housing, are not entitled to free meals, are imprisoned and have their children taken away from them. This only generates more hardship, more poverty, the impossibility of reintegration, and contributes to the formation of a caste of pariahs: the untouchables, despised by all and to whom society offers nothing but a cell, making the American prison system the largest in the world in terms of the ratio of inmates to population. And when they do get out, they add to the 580,000 homeless counted, 226,000 of whom sleep in cars, on the floor, in abandoned buildings . Two thirds are unmarried adults, one third are entire families or young singles . And if they have been in jail, they lose the right to enter a housing list .
There is no defence, even if one follows the rules: in the United States the minimum wage is less than eight dollars an hour, a figure that does not allow one to sustain a rent in decent housing: rents are rising, wages are not. With the pandemic, of course, everything has worsened, especially among black families . The global wealth of billionaires has skyrocketed at an unprecedented rate: a study published by Swiss bank UBS and consultancy firm PwC found that the total wealth of the world’s 2189 billionaires has risen to a record high of $10.2 trillion, erasing the previous record of $8900 billion recorded at the end of 2017 . Exorbitant wealth that, thanks to Trump (and the fact that Biden did not undo the laws of the previous presidency) contributes nothing to funding a welfare state that helps those most in need.
ProPublica recently reported that while the average American family, earning around $68,000 a year, pays 14% in federal taxes, the 25 richest Americans pay a ‘real tax rate’ of 3.4%, despite a $401 billion growth in wealth between 2014 and 2018 . Elon Musk , for example, passed the $100 billion mark to become the world’s fifth 100-billionaire, and saw his wealth increase 242% in the first eight months of 2020 (Jeff Bezos added $65 billion to his net worth this year).
September 1968: Anti-poverty demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia
A crucial factor in the explosion of wealth is the development of the stock market. The Federal Reserve estimates that the richest 10% of Americans hold more than 88% of all available shares in companies and mutual fund shares. Those who, during the pandemic, had access to finance and were able to work from home got rich, the others lost a lot – or everything, including their lives, since the pandemic has so far cost 210,000 lives.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, the agency that collects taxes, it is easier to control the poor than the rich, justifying this claim by complaining about staff shortages – and thus political will . For the average American, it is an acceptable social price to know that if you lose your job, your scholarship, get sick, get separated, you can get by for a month, then you end up on the street – and the children end up there even sooner, because their family implodes or rejects them: it is no coincidence that gays, lesbians and transgender people account for 40 per cent of homeless youth, and 80 per cent belong to an ethnic minority (African American, Latino or Asian). This is while whites hold 85% of the wealth, compared to just 4.1% of black households: the average wealth of black households in 2016 is $17,150, that of Caucasian households is $171,000 .
The highest poverty rates are those of American Indians (23%) and blacks (21%). The next highest group is Hispanics (17%), followed by Asians and whites (8%). Poverty rates vary considerably by educational level: 25% of those without a high school diploma, 4% of those with a college degree or higher. It is estimated that California, which has some of the most expensive housing in the country, has more than 25% of the nation’s homeless population. Approximately 70 per cent of the state’s homeless live outdoors, and in January 2020, a federal survey found that 70 per cent of them report being homeless for the first time . The states with the highest poverty rates are largely in the south, Mississippi (20 per cent), Louisiana and New Mexico (19 per cent) and West Virginia (18 per cent), while most northeastern states have rates below 10 per cent .
The end of the American dream
Municipalities destroy homeless encampments
College enrolments are plummeting like never before in all categories, from community colleges to private universities. The recession has forced many young people to choose between education and work, and many are choosing the latter. When COVID and the lock-out curbed the economy in spring 2020, the media assumed that this would cause a birth boom. The opposite has happened . From 9/11 to the war on terror, the 2008 financial crisis, and growing inequality, everything has contributed to destroying the confidence of the younger generation. America no longer attracts young foreign students: from Colombia to Morocco and Afghanistan, all have grown up watching America disgrace itself. Many colleges are closing, and it will get worse if the population continues to decline.
The squandering of trillions of dollars on the Cold War , on Vietnam and the nuclear arms race, Richard Nixon’s presidency with rampant corruption and the Watergate scandal , the destruction of the social safety net wanted by Ronald Reagan and continued with Clinton , Bush and Obama , the Gulf War in 1990-91 and the engagement in endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the Wall street crash of 2008 and, last but not least, the Covid-19 epidemic, all these events have enriched the lobbyists and their clients, but forced millions into poverty and the gig economy (that of casual jobs, like Uber, Deliveroo and Glovo ).
Everything worsens at an ever-increasing speed: ethnic and class conflict, ignorance, democratic and institutional backwardness, healthcare and inequality. No other western country has such a poor public health infrastructure or such a crumbling social safety net . When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, individual states were given more autonomy over how to use federal funding for aid to the poor. Twenty-six years later, states are using this freedom to do absolutely nothing – each year there is $5.2 billion in unspent funds from the Assistance for Needy Families programme, or TANF . American levels of police violence and crime are comparable to those of Venezuela and South Africa, and even Cuba and Bosnia have better data on infant mortality rates and other social indicators .
One has to go all the way back to the reigns of Nero in Rome (1st century) or Tsar Nicholas of Russia in the early 20th century to find such ineptitude in the face of enormous threats . The majority of Americans barely care about other Americans, especially those with dark skin. This is the consequence of 400 years of racism and narcissism. A decade of blood-soaked populism has made politics savage and divisive, and even less capable of life-saving compromises. A nation where 18-year-olds are forbidden to buy a beer but can legally buy semi-automatic weapons unmasks a serious political paralysis.
Millions of people are disenfranchised and protected by no one . Language barriers, socio-economic disparities, lack of access to transport, housing, mail and digital technology limit the participation of those in precarious economic conditions. And if you have no roof over your head, you cannot have an identity card – you simply cease to exist. The loss of the right to vote is the loss of voice in the democratic process .
The myth of self-defence and the renunciation of the health system
An image of one of the dozens of massacres perpetrated in American schools by crazed students
America is a nation born of violence, which currently ‘boasts’ a gun homicide rate about 20 times higher than the average of other industrialised countries. Mass shootings are the order of the day. Undoubtedly, self-defence was at one point in American history a necessity for survival, so that, in the United States, owning guns is a right enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution . This mentality fuels rampant legal and illegal gun ownership. If you ask gun advocates why they need a gun, very often the answer is that they need it to defend themselves against people who own guns . By now, at least 39% of American households have a gun or rifle. And it is not just those who already have guns who are buying new ones: according to the data, there are many who have only recently chosen to arm themselves.
That the myth of self-defence is an illusory one is evident when one considers the number of school shootings . A myth fomented by the NRA National Rifle Association, a lobby capable of determining presidential elections, which in 2016 spent more than 50 million dollars to support Donald Trump – in crisis due to infighting and the scandal that engulfed its head, Wayne La Pierre , accused of embezzling 64 million dollars from the coffers of his own organisation . According to a 2018 Small Arms Survey report, US citizens own 393.3 million guns, a figure greater than the population (330 million) . It is a growing wave: Americans have been buying in droves since 2020, frightened by the pandemic and race riots. The massacres, far from suppressing demand, stimulate purchases. After the shooting in Uvalde (Texas), the shares of Smith & Wesson rose 8.9% and those of Sturm Ruger , the gun manufacturer, rose 6.1% .
Money to arm oneself is found, money to cure oneself less so. Everyone struggles to pay for expensive health care, and there is little confidence that the federal government will implement reforms to improve things. For those on very low wages, trying to raise children, after paying for housing, electricity, food, transport and childcare, paying even for health insurance is impossible. The Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) was designed to make insurance affordable for Americans with low and moderate incomes. However, it is not enough . At the end of 2021, about 100 million Americans described the healthcare system as ‘expensive’ or ‘broken’ in a survey. Almost half say their confidence in the system is declining.
One in 20 adults say a friend or family member has died because they could not afford medical care. The US spends nearly $4 trillion on health care, making it the most expensive system in the world. Yet, according to the Commonwealth Fund, it produces unacceptable results in life expectancy, obesity rates, chronic disease treatment, and suicide rates, compared to other Western countries . Of course, the healthcare system also treats whites differently from blacks and other ethnicities. African-Americans, for the same benefits, are paid less than whites and, therefore, have a harder time achieving solid welfare .
Almost 50% of Americans are without a pension . The government does not help citizens organise for retirement, young people cannot imagine being old, so they do not save – and when they realise the problem, it is too late. Clinton, Bush and Obama tried to push pension plans through Congress. They failed, and Obama’s plan, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act, died in Congress when Trump took office . Biden’s pension promises have been disappointed, given the balance of power in Congress . The current pension depends on the 401(k) plan, but many middle-class citizens stop paying it because they need money for emergencies .
Police state and right-wing extremism
25 May 2020: Minneapolis Police murder George Floyd, a defenceless black citizen
Completely out of control, the police, who at gunpoint and beatings, hold the population in check, now convinced that the justice system does not treat everyone equally . Every year around 1000 civilians are killed by police officers . In the two years since George Floyd’s murder, the US has made little progress in prevention, and promises of reforms have not been kept. Those reforms include removing funding for the police, but Joe Biden, who advocates the opposite policy, has presented a budget proposal for $30 billion more for law enforcement and crime prevention efforts, including funding to put more police officers on the streets.
Police kill far more people in the US than in other advanced industrial democracies. Violent confrontations have profound effects on daily life. The police play a key role in maintaining structural inequalities between black and white people. And the target of uniformed officers are African American, American Indian, Alaska Native and Latino men and women who run a higher lifetime risk of being killed than their white peers . Since the 1980s, the police have used the ‘broken windows’ strategy, according to which visible signs of crime (such as altered state, sleeping outside, disturbing the peace and loitering) create an environment that encourages crime and disorder, including the most serious crimes, and must be severely suppressed.
Pre-trial detention has a disproportionate impact on black communities. Nationally, over 60 per cent of prisoners are incarcerated awaiting trial and over 30 per cent cannot afford to post bail . Austerity in social welfare programmes has led police and prisons to become universal responses to social problems, but also to create huge costs in compensating civilians for police misconduct: since 2010, the city of St. Louis alone has paid out over $33 million, and Baltimore has been held liable for around $50 million for police brutality. Over the past 20 years, Chicago has spent over $650 million .
Yet, inordinate police violence is still insufficient for an important part of the population. Democracy in the US is being challenged by far-right groups and paramilitary organisations, financed by political parties and millionaire aristocrats. The seriousness of the situation became clear to everyone with the storming of Capitol Hill by white supremacists and Trump supporters on 6 January 2021 .
More and more illegal organisations, such as the Oath Keepers, the Florida 3%ers and the Proud Boys, are being formed with the intention of subverting the rule of law. These groups are led by people with a military background, such as Mike Clampitt, a retired fire captain from Charlotte (North Carolina), a militant of the Oath Keepers, a neo-fascist organisation with more than 35,000 members, including ten congressmen, two former congressmen from individual states, a current candidate, several county commissioners from Indiana, Arizona and North Carolina, sheriffs or policemen in Montana, Texas and Kentucky, detectives in Texas and Louisiana, and a high-ranking official of a New Jersey city.
These organisations, whose members turn up at public events heavily armed and like to clash with left-wing militants, believe in a dark summit of absurd conspiracies. With the economic crisis, there is a risk that more and more people will choose one of these extremist movements, which proselytise in the urban subculture through the use of social networks.
The controversial values of the American people
6 January 2021: Members of Proud Boys chant white power in front of the Capitol Hill
The immobility of politics in the face of such events also makes one reflect on the significance of the demonstrations on abortion in recent weeks. The decision to ban the right to abortion does not mean eliminating it, but making it clandestine. Women do not cease to be free, they put their lives at risk to remain so. Many conspiracy theories circulate about this. There are those who find a connection between these events, and link them to a centuries-old history of panic over white birth rates. Understanding them reveals the common roots of racist violence and anti-abortion policies.
Both are part of a long history of American anxiety about the fertility and reproduction of a ‘white race’. An idea that claims there is a conspiracy to replace the white population with immigrants and African-Americans. Republicans have recently made the theory a hobbyhorse, but the story is ancient and is linked to racist and eugenic concerns about the alleged demographic decline of the Caucasian population. These same concerns contributed to making abortion illegal in 19th century America, and it is recent news that the US Supreme Court has overturned the Roe vs Wade ruling that legalised it in 1973. A decision that erases a constitutional right established half a century ago and exacerbates America’s deep cultural divide.
Ignorance creates absurd myths: 15% of citizens believe that the government, the media and the banks are in the hands of Satanists: aligned, that is, with the QAnon conspiracy theorists (the same ones who claim that George Soros, Bill Gates, Tom Hanks, Celine Dion, Hillary Clinton and Obama are part of a sect of paedophiles and Donald Trump is some sort of messianic saviour) . For the generations of Europeans born in the immediate post-war period, this is astonishing, because in the context of the Cold War, and supported by the Marshall Plan, we were to dream of America as the land of infinite freedom, infinite spaces, chances for all.
The truth is that America has the same problems as metropolises like Mumbai, and in the countryside chaos reigns in which the most violent, as in the 19th century, are still those who wear a star on their chest and dictate the law. Our values are not the same as those of the Americans. We Europeans, if we declare war, do not claim to be ‘exporting democracy’. And besides, in a country dominated by lobbies, where one in five citizens vote, where inequality and injustice are the rule, it is difficult to speak of democracy. A country that supports (in words) freedom of the press, but persecutes Julien Assange, guilty of telling the truth. The Americans appear naive, victimistic, obtuse, intrusive, disrespectful of cultural differences. The danger is that we continue to import American models even now that they are obviously harmful, violent and dysfunctional.
We complain about the fact that little is read in Europe. Of the fact that here too, as in America, functional illiteracy is rampant. The United States is a nation where even in university towns bookshops and libraries have disappeared, replaced by notes on a computer. Bookshops where it is still possible to breathe in the scent of paper and magic that, unlike in Europe, the last flame of freedom and cultural progress, inexplicably no one thinks of bottling up.
 https://www.infodata.ilsole24ore.com/2021/06/18/quanto-lontano-dalla-soglia-poverta-scoprilo-calcolatore-interattivo/?refresh_ce=1 ; https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/en/web/products-statistical-books/-/ks-70-07-038
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