Back in 1962, Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America” served to awaken us to the extent and depth of poverty across our society. Since then it has become commonplace for one advocacy group or another to highlight a particular area of social concern and to circumstances that severely diminish the lives of those affected. It’s not always easy to gauge the accuracy of statistics produced to underscore the seriousness of the situation, but almost always the figures produce surprise, even shock. But then, in a nation as populous as ours, unless a problem affects millions it may fail to impress.
Having been subjected to an avalanche of disturbing statistics, one must inevitably conclude that vast numbers of our fellow citizens lead lives of quiet desperation, or worse. Sure all of us have problems and nearly everyone knows people who are afflicted in one way or another. These individuals live with abusive spouses, have been sick a good part of their lives, have lost their jobs and been unemployed for lengthy periods, have family members who are alcoholics, children who are substance abusers, parents who suffer long-term dementia. These individual stories we are told merely illustrate the massive level of social dislocation abroad in the society.
And so you begin to make calculations in order to grasp the magnitude of the situation. Let us acknowledge overlap, definitional uncertainty and the imperatives of special pleading. Still, you can’t help but come away from such inquiries without recognizing that all is not well across our society.
Start with the current unemployment rate that leaves millions without jobs, many more millions working but part-time, and countless millions experiencing persistent “job insecurity.” At the other extreme consider the 2.4 million Americans locked away in federal or state jails. But even for those out in society, well over forty million of our fellow Americans live in poverty or suffer ongoing food insecurity, while over 600,000 are homeless on any given night. Countless millions are bound by the chains of alcohol and substance addiction while many more millions lead lives that are mostly bleak and without hope in the ravaged inner cities and rural wastelands of our country. Let us also not overlook the one million who are deaf, the two million who are blind, and the 2.4 million who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, senility or dementia. Were we to calculate the numbers who face ongoing psychological distress, or are afflicted with obesity, battling cancer, Aids, etc., the totals would be staggering. We won’t even consider here the plight of undocumented immigrants living fearfully in the shadows of our society or the legions of sufferers from domestic violence, the aftermath of rape, or those locked away in mental facilities or restricted to juvenile institutions.
What are we to make of this bleak accounting? Surely it prompts us to question those upbeat images of America that we’ve long accepted. Is it possible that they are not now or perhaps never were in sync with reality? Or maybe all this suffering, pain, even hopelessness, this evidence of blighted lives is something relatively new, signaling that our society is changing in ways we can ignore only at our peril.