Some thoughts on social justice in the U.S.…

It’s time to put some new tools in our toolbox.

Find this at Rikki’s Refuge on Flickr

I spent part of my life learning a great deal about disadvantaged and marginalized populations in the U.S: About their statistically likely home lives, school lives, social and educational prospects, etc. In the course of my research, I came across some startling statistics regarding food insecurity in the United States, by any measure an issue of social justice. For example, in 2019, the USDA reported that 10% of American households faced food insecurity — meaning, members of these households were generally uncertain where their next meal was coming from. That number is shameful enough in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but things only got worse during the pandemic: Researchers at Northwestern University estimate that during the pandemic year of 2020, as many as 23% of U.S. households were food insecure. Beyond that, even in the halcyon year of 2019, as many as 8.5 of Americans had no health insurance.

In most countries in Europe, it is inconceivable to get sick and not be able to afford medical care; it is inconceivable to lose your job and not receive support until you’re back on your feet; it is inconceivable to be in debt for decades in order to pay off a college loan. In fact, in 2009, more than 100,000 German university students, teachers, and parents rioted in the streets, in part over some state governments’ implementation of student college fees — students would now be expected to pay about €1,000 (at the time, approximately USD 1,400) per year to attend college. Admittedly, the German higher education system has its problems, but it would certainly be worth reframing our discussion of tuition fees in the U.S. to include mention of such a sensible number.

It is undeniable that the U.S. as a whole has benefited enormously from a lengthy run of largely laissez faire capitalism; based on GDP, the U.S. is the 5th wealthiest nation in the world. It is undeniable that the Cold War “low-savings, high-consumption” program of the U.S. government and U.S. households has contributed enormously to the innovation, technological development, and overall wealth the U.S. enjoys as a nation today. It is also undeniable that even through 2019, at the height of recent economic expansion, the gap between rich and poor was growing ever larger.

I have cited above some textbook examples of social injustice. On the other hand, “social justice tends to focus more on just relations between groups within society as opposed to the justice of individual conduct or justice for individuals.” The imbalance between the haves and the have-nots in U.S. society perfectly illustrates unjust relations between groups society.

It is fair to ask, in a country founded on principles of individual liberty and individual responsibility, whether or not it should be the concern of the government (and, in a “we the people” context, the concern of taxpaying citizens) to provide social services that would alleviate some of these disparities.

I think it is also fair to ask: What is the point of the United States?

Bhutan, for example, has famously decided that the point of its national existence is “a holistic approach to sustainable development that gives as much weight to human flourishing as it does wealth.” Bhutan is, admittedly, a poor, landlocked country that only ranked 95th out of 156 countries surveyed for the 2019 World Happiness Report. It has certainly not reached its goal of a balance between ‘happiness’ and wealth. Nonetheless, the country has a goal, something to aim for, and its national goal is the well-being of its citizens.

I’m not sure that has ever been a consideration for the United States. During the Cold War, the national goal was military superiority to prevent nuclear holocaust, which is something I can certainly get behind. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, I’m not certain that we as a nation have revisited our priorities; we continue to spend massive amounts on our military and on contracts with private industry to support the military. For example, the U.S. has the largest air force in the world; in 2020 the U.S. had available 13,264 military aircraft (all forces), more than the next FIVE largest countries’ air forces COMBINED. And within this context, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer and the gap between social justice and social injustice is growing ever starker.

I think we have reached a point that every taxpaying citizen should be actively considering issues of social justice in this country. And every taxpaying citizen should be demanding more of its government than facing new catastrophes with outdated tools: “We’re facing big problems where past models provide a poor guide. Fixing new, wicked problems with old, outdated tools is like trying to change a tire with a screwdriver and a hammer. If we don’t have the right tools in the toolbox, we won’t be up to the job — and we’re spending precious little time designing the right toolbox for the problems we face.” The author was explicitly talking about how we manage emergency incidents, meaning disasters like a terrorist attack, earthquake, fire, or hurricane. But I think a strong case can be made for treating the growing issue of social injustice in the country as a similar sort of emergency.

One of the teaching guidelines of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is “avoid simple answers to complex questions,” which I think is valid guidance for anything involving humans; we are very complex creatures and create complex situations simply by virtue of existing. There are people whom I dearly love who would foam at the mouth over the things I am suggesting here, certain that anything that looks even remotely like “handouts” spells the end of the American way of life. (One thing to consider is: If so many people are doing so poorly under “the American way of life,” would it be such a bad thing if it changed?) So, I know from experience that there are a lot of often one-sided responses to my opinions, which responses, in my view, don’t do anything like justice to the complex interweaving of human needs in society and which definitely represent “old tools” for tackling a very new sort of problem. I think it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that the world has added 6.3 BILLION people since 1900; tools that worked to alleviate suffering in 1900 may not scale well in 2021, and I think it’s worth doing the hard work to develop a more complex answer to this problem. When everyone can succeed, the entire nation benefits: Taking care of humans doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

Christ follower. Worshiper of Almighty God. Evangelical Christian. Wife, mother, daughter, sister. Human.