Backwards America

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Do we just take it for granted that the U.S. is the best at everything? We don’t seem to notice how bad things really are. Or how much better off other countries are in ways we used to excel.

According to The Social Progress Index, compiled by Professor Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School, the United States ranks “30th in life expectancy, 38th in saving children’s lives, and a humiliating 55th in women surviving childbirth . . . . We have higher traffic fatality rates than 37 other countries, and higher suicide rates than 80.”

We also rank 32nd in preventing early marriage, 38th in the equality of our education system, 49th in high school enrollment rates

But in reporting on these findings in The Times, Nicholas Kristof disposed of the idea that income inequality has amplified the suffering of the poor. He pointed out that “Professor Porter and his number-crunchers found only a mild correlation between economic equality (measured by Gini coefficient) and social progress.”

“What mattered much more was poverty.” He added: “inequality at the top seems to matter less for well-being than inequality at the bottom. Perhaps we should worry less about reining in the top 1 percent and more about helping the bottom 20 percent?”

We can reach two conclusions from this. One: we don’t have to be super wealthy to make social progress. The more billionaires we have doesn’t make for better, healthier or safer lives. On the other hand, you have to have a certain amount of money in our society just to be seen, and those not seen, at the bottom or in the margins, don’t seem to register. Not only do they lack advocates in Washington, many of them, demoralized and hopeless, don’t even bother to vote. Perhaps we never were “one nation,” but as we focus on our celebrities and oligarchs, the others seem increasingly irrelevant.

A few years ago, I cited a study demonstrating that the poor are more generous than the rich. They have less to give, of course, but they give more of what they have. That must be because they have an easier time identifying with the suffering of others. Being poor they can’t so easily deny what reminds them of their own plight. They empathize and identify with those who belong with them in their groups.

The rich empathize with their groups, of course, but the groups to which they belong attend benefits and openings, sponsor galas and contribute to building new museum wings or concert halls or hospitals or schools. The issues they speak about with each other are about getting what they want, even when that means giving millions away in order to make sure they are in control. And they are seldom unrecognized, whether their names are on the front of buildings, on the backs of chairs, or in programs.

And, generally speaking, they are not suffering.