State of Disunion

What Is the Cost of American Prosperity?

The U.S. boasts one of the most productive economies in the world. But the government’s—and often society's—refusal to address more than half the nation’s needs means most of us are struggling to make ends meet.

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The United States has the greatest economy in the history of the world. We are a behemoth of wealth unprecedented in scale, scope, and returns. Three states by themselves—California, Texas, New York—would place in the top ten most productive economies on the planet if they were their own nations, ranking above the likes of Russia, Mexico, Australia, and Saudi Arabia. With this money machine, we have produced extraordinary creature comforts, developed artistic, cultural, and scientific breakthroughs that have reshaped the globe, generated new frontiers of innovation and industrialization—and created across our nation a gnawing, desperate, deepening poverty.

In a country that produces enough food to meet everyone’s needs almost twice over, more than 44 million people struggle to know where their next meal is coming from—including 1 in 5 American children. Our nation spans a continent, averaging fewer than 100 people per square mile, but we don’t have enough shelter to cover every head. We have the most expensive healthcare in the world by far—only to produce some of the worst health outcomes among developed nations, with some states barely outstripping developing economies. For as wealthy and prosperous as we are, life in the United States is defined by what our money fails to do.

To reckon with the dissonance of our poverty and prosperity in such close contrast, we rationalize our disinvestment with equal parts moral denial and disgust. The United States simply can’t afford paid parental leave, dedicated sick time or disability, a shorter work week or a higher minimum wage. Expansive social insurance would be great—subsidies for childcare, universal health plans, state-sponsored college education—but it won’t work in a country as large and diverse as ours. Besides, people don’t appreciate what they don’t earn. Laziness and disinterest shouldn’t be rewarded. If people want to have certain things, maybe they should work harder instead of whatever is keeping them living paycheck to paycheck or scratching out a living on the streets. We tell ourselves we can’t do any better and then say it wouldn’t matter if we could—normalizing our brokenness so we never have to fix it because there are people profiting from the cracks.

In our discourse about the national economy, it is always about what people aren’t doing instead of what the system fails to provide. We talk about how people can’t afford rent instead of asking how we ended up with so many cities where rent is unaffordable, resulting in a full-time job at minimum wage being insufficient to rent a one-bedroom anywhere in the country. We deplore irresponsible spending by individuals—avocado toast has apparently ruined a generation—but rarely inspect the reckless bets of the private sector, even after the last set destroyed trillions in wealth. Everyone is wincing at the price of groceries, but few are focused on how grocery stores profit from throwing out almost as much as they sell. Regardless of partisan affiliation, cities and states across the country are investing millions in making public spaces inhospitable to the unhoused rather than putting effort into expanding space for everyone to live. The result has brought the case to criminalize homelessness to the docket of the Supreme Court this year.

Should the majority opinion be written by one of the court’s conservatives, we are almost certain to see the language of recrimination and blame levied against people grasping at the edge of civilization—sheltering in their cars, camping in tents and RVs, or making do with sleeping bags and doorways to protect them from the elements. From people with lifetime sinecures and multi-million-dollar vacations from their benefactors, there will be no sympathy for those who are simply trying to survive in a society that has constructed everything against them. Even knowing that the edict to disregard the well-being of thousands of desperate people will put millions more in jeopardy, the prerogatives of these “public” servants aren’t aligned with the needs of the many because they have been honed to serve the interests of a few.

With their cut of the more than $28 trillion economy, private industry has distorted the discussion around investment for our elected officials—insisting that what is good for them is enough for us. It is, after all, a very nice economy and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. So the public has sponsored sports stadia and casinos, coughed up cash to lure businesses that will profit from public goods, left planes and trains and automobiles without regulation or inspection, undermined social aid, removed pandemic protections wholesale, and invested multiples more in an impotent carceral cure than proven forms of social prevention. All of this to receive the externalities of our neglect piled atop a heap of increasingly useless products that neither meet consumer needs nor serve a purpose.

Searches are suckier. Servings are smaller. Companies with long track records promise less and deliver nothing, while brand-new corporations seem little more than schemes and scams to prey upon our unrealized hopes. Public goods are passed through private intermediaries and the costs balloon to several times the original quote as contractors send out work to subcontractors who coordinate with subsidiaries who eventually reach an English-speaking customer service agent in the Philippines making $3 an hour for efficiency.

And we are repeatedly assured by companies, by politicians, and by the billionaire-owned outlets that cover all of the above, that all of this is for the good of The Economy, which has to operate this way or else. We can’t afford higher wages, they whine—as they jack up the price of food to keep their historic profit margins. We can’t afford a comprehensive regulatory structure—as plane doors tear off mid-flight. We can’t feed people or support water conservation or subsidize housing construction or pause evictions or lower congestion or fight climate change or pay for copyright or hold anyone, anywhere in power accountable for anything because the effort might imperil someone’s bottom line. Even as lives of desperation are followed by deaths of despair, we are told that The Economy is worth the sacrifice.

Our government has been so thoroughly ensnared by the power of private investment that it has forgotten the point of prosperity. If there is not enough shelter in the city, the economy should support its expansion. If there is enough food, the market should ensure that everyone eats. Where private enterprise would have every incentive to gouge and exploit, the government should provide stability, oversight, and protection. Industries have interests, but people have needs. And we have spent almost half a century contorting ourselves to meet the interests of the economy instead of fashioning an economy that meets our needs. For all the wealth we have created, we are that much poorer for it.

Such an extended era of mismanagement can’t be fixed overnight. It is more than the bribery or corruption or the systemic vulnerabilities of a government that seeks money more than justice. It is a mindset in officials and voters that conflates the impressiveness of the top number with the well-being of the people it is meant to support. Our public investments provide results that would make a private sector company weep with joy, and yet we shovel more money away from solutions to create more problems. A dollar in food assistance can get up to 165% returns. A dollar in IRS funding reaps between $4 to $5 in value. It is cheaper to simply house people than to incarcerate them or devise unnecessarily complex temporary shelters. Wage theft is larger than every other form of stealing combined. Social Security—our public retirement insurance program that ensures dignity after work—would be fully funded for almost another century without issue if we simply removed the cap on all taxable income, allowing generations yet to be born to have safety in old age. The fixes are obvious and available; we just need to accept them. The tools of economic liberation are always at hand.

When we try to use them to forge a better future, we will hear that we do so at our peril. This is the lie we have received about ending chattel slavery, about unionizing workers, about instituting safety measures, about absorbing waves of immigrants, about racial and ethnic and religious integration, about economic liberation for women and femmes—and it is always proven wrong. The measure of progress in the United States has never been the heights of our ceilings but the stability and safety of our floor. What else, we should retort, is an economy good for?

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