How Poor People Survive in America

Neoliberal policies in America over the last 30 years have led to massive economic inequalities.

Policies such of tax cuts for the rich and restrictions in welfare spending mean that now even working people on relatively high incomes cannot afford rent in some of the more expensive areas of America, such as California.

As a result, we have a situation where hundreds of thousands of in-work Americans are forced to live in their vehicles in parking lots, as the documentary below explores.

This documentary should be of interest to anyone studying the Global Development Option for A-level sociology.

Homelessness in California

The documentary starts with the case study of one woman who works as a carer and a cleaner and used to live in a very nice house with her husband in California.

The relationship broke down, and she preferred to leave the house and him behind, but her income of $1800 a year meant she simply couldn’t afford to rent anything in her local area, and so she chose to live in her car instead.

She parks in a free parking lot where a charity has provided water, toilets and an outdoor kitchen for use, and it’s most interesting to note that it’s not the State funding this, but charities.

We see a lot of other people in the same situation – working, but living in their vehicles.

Another guy, aged 53, used to work as a computer engineer, working 50 hours a week earning $7000 a month ($80K a year), but he had a burn out and then some heart problems and after 6 months of unemployment benefit and then nothing he burnt through all of his savings and eventually couldn’t afford to live in an apartment anymore.

He now sleeps in the driving seat of his car (which looks very uncomfortable) and does temporary work to try and get back on track.

Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia

Virginia has one of the highest homeless rates in America and this section of the video starts off with a clip of local police evicting a tenant who is behind with the rent at gun point. Entering with guns drawn is standard, the tenant is actually half way through packing and willing to go.

In Virginia, if you’re only five days behind with payment you can have a late payment order made agains you, and you then have a week to pay, and then be evicted and rendered homeless immediately.

We now get to see a guy who has been living in a motel room for 2 years at the cost of $1300 a month, sharing with his partner. He cannot rent because of his past late payment notices – the State keeps a public database of late payments which landlords can search and they tend not to rent out to people with a history of bad debt.

(It’s quite interesting to compare this to the case in the UK, where we seem to have the other extreme, as evidenced in the ‘Nightmare Tenant’s type programmes – where tenants seem to have too many legal rights to stay put while the landlord just soaks up their debt!)

Poverty in the Apalachians

The documentary now moves away from homelessness in cities and focus on poverty in rural America, heading to the Apalachians. It’s often said that the American Dream got lost somewhere along the way in Apalachia.

Apalachia is home to mainly white working class Americans, 80% of whom voted for Trump, and support seems to be unwavering despite the fact that life hasn’t got better for them under his administration.

We witness a family of five who are on benefits and receive around 1200 EU a month to live off (which I think includes food stamps) – this involves the parents eating only one meal a day at the end of the month. They rely on a free food for kids meal truck that hand out food to children in the area.

Lindon B Johnson created food stamps as part of his war on poverty, and to this day 40 million U.S. Citizens still receive them.

We also get to see a Veteran who is retired on 700 EU a month and receives about 650 EU in food stamps, to feed her, her niece and her three children.

Of course they’re all overweight.

Once a month a team of Doctors provides free medical check ups – many people here, like around 20 million Americans, have no medical insurance. The service is very popular! It’s not just Doctors, it’s also dentists.

The scene looks like something out of a war zone – a triage centre.

A more extensive welfare state would help these people

This video will challenge your stereotypes about homeless people – these are all people who are hardworking and want to get ahead but just had bad luck in life which set them on the path to homelessness.

The State in America offers very little assistance to such people – and the fates of these individuals seem to be a good argument for having a more extensive welfare state like we do in Britain which offers support such as free health care and housing benefit for longer periods.

A more socialist solution would simply be to have more state housing – designated not for profit housing in which people can stay, even have it subsidised at cost maybe?!?

Los Angeles – the Homeless Capital of the United States

In the last few years the number of homeless in Los Angeles have risen from 33 000 to 59 000

Here we get to see Elvis, a guy who has a plan to combat the problem of homelessness. He gave up his job (he lives off his partner) and helps those less fortunate.

He builds small wooden cabins which cost $1000 (paid for by donations) – they have window locks and a solar panel to power an alarm and a light – they basically allow people to get a secure night’s sleep.

One of the tiny houses being delivered in LA.

However, they are illegal as the mayor has forbidden him to put them on the sidewalks of the streets, but Elvis carries on regardless.

We get to see a scene where Elvis delivers a cabin to a couple sleeping on the streets, an upset resident calls the police and there is a ‘remove or destroy order’ put on the cabin. They do manage to find a spot for it on private land, but that’s the way it goes in Los Angeles!

The Being Homeless Role Play in Waco Texas

The video finishes with a project in Waco, Texas. Once a month, people come to act out what its like to be homeless for 24 hours – to give them a feel for the reality.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This documentary should be of interest to any student studying the Global Development option – it’s a good illustration of the level of inequality in the United States, one of the richest countries on earth, and shows that even very wealthy countries have pockets of grim poverty and social problems such as homelessness.

Find out more….

The story of how the Los Angeles authorities have prevented Elvis from donating tiny homes is pretty depressing – an example of the State actually preventing a DIY solution to poverty.

You can find out more by reading this article in Tree Hugger, or just searching for ‘Elvis, LA, homeless, tiny house’.

Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom – ‘Distraction Politics’ of the very highest order?

The British Press have been all over Donald Trump’s four day visit to the United Kingdom… but predictably the focus has been mostly on the trivial details of the itinerary, the ‘intense’ security surrounding the event and Trump’s ‘outrageous’ off-the-cuff comments about Brexit, rather than on the substance of Trump’s pro hard-Brexit arguments or on the logic behind why thousands of people are protesting about his being here.

The BBC News coverage, for example, made a great deal out of the stringent security methods surrounding Trump’s first visit, and there was lots of coverage of Trump ‘in transit’ to various elegant places, such as Blenheim Palace, where we were reminded that while this wasn’t a state visit Trump still gets the Grenadier Guards playing the national anthem, a full-on Banquet, and he gets to meet the Queen.

Trump UK state visit.png

There was, of course, coverage of the protestors outside Blenheim palace, where a couple of them told us that they didn’t like the politics he represented, or his misogynistic and racist attitudes, but this was largely stripped of any deeper logic or substance.

There was also lots of commentary on the (non)-content of the interview Trump gave to The Sun Newspaper on Thursday 12 July during which he criticised Theresa May for not listening to his advice on Brexit and pursuing a ‘soft-brexit’, suggesting that this would now mean that a ‘trade-deal’ with the USA would be very unlikely, and even lamenting the fact that Boris Johnson had stepped down from Politics, stating that he would make a great ‘Prime Minister’.

According to Chomsky, the function of such ‘outrageous comments’ is to keep ‘all eyes on Trump’ and to distract us from the wider neoliberal republican (and Tory) agenda which seeks to dismantle government protections for the average working person, and make it easier for elites to destroy people and planet for short term profit.

Chomsky outlines his views in this video, and I suggest everyone watches it:

Chomsky makes some pretty ‘hardline claims’ in this video, mainly that in reality Trump is part of a broader republican administration who knows exactly what they are doing: they have an extremely neo-liberal agenda to dismantle every part of government which protects the poor and the planet. In America the Republic Government is currently doing this, by taking away workers rights, pollution laws, consumer protections and by basically destroying the planet for short term profit.

The function of Trump needs to be understood in this context: all the time we focus on him and his personalised politics, we are not focussing on the real issues: the fact that the Republican Party are the most dangerous organised institution in human history, worse than the Nazis: because the Nazis never actually intended to destroy all life on earth for their short term gain, only some lives! (NB these are Chomsky’s words – in the video- not mine!)

Back to the media coverage of Trump – the subtle art of distraction away from the harsh realities of neoliberal politics?

Here I just want to focus on how the BBC coverage distracts us, both in the US and the UK…don’t forget that any 10 minute news item could focus on any aspect of the issue….

Firstly, at least 20% of the coverage is on triviality – itineraries, security, personalities, which has nothing to do with politics. Time wasted here.

Secondly, Trump’s comments in The Sun give us a distorted idea of how politics work – he personalises politics – giving us the impression that Theresa May is ‘free’ to heed his advice or not, that’s not how politics works, individuals are generally much more constrained.

Thirdly, Trump greatly simplifies the issues…. As he’s got the power to decide whether or not the USA does a trade deal with the UK… it’s the republican party more generally that decides that, remember he’s embedded in a power elite, he’s not a ‘lone operator’…. However, in the media, he appears like a lone operator, that’s why the elite love him so much, it’s just total obfuscation.

Fourthly…. Trump today (Friday, one day after) actually called his interview with The Sun ‘Fake News’ and denied criticizing Theresa May, even though the whole thing is recorded: another great distraction tactic, keeping the media focused on him, again away from the issues.

Fifthly… some protesters are protesting because they are against precisely the reality that Chomsky points out…. They are against people destroying the planet for the short term gain of an extremely wealthy ultra-minority. Yet does the media tell us this: no – most people are there protesting because they don’t like Donald Trump the man, the misogynist, again personalising and individualising the issues which are fundamentally social.

I’ll leave it there for today, just a few comments to illustrate what  Chomskian analysis of the mainstream media coverage of Trump’s visit to the UK might look like!

Picture Sources

All pictures screen captured from BBC News at 10.00, Thursday 12th July.

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The Declining Value of A Degree?

More people are doing degrees, yet they are less likely to give us the skills future employers need, so is it worth doing a degree in the first place? Or are you better off saving £50K?

In this thought-provoking article Zak Slayback argues that the value of a degree has declined for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, he cites the increasing number of people who achieve degrees compared to 50 years ago – Today’s degree, in some ways, is like like the old high school diploma.
  • Secondly, he cites evidence of ‘degree inflation’ in many sectors. For example 25 percent of people employed as insurance clerks have a BA, but twice that percentage of insurance-clerk job ads require one. Among executive secretaries and executive assistants, 19 percent of job-holders have degrees, but 65 percent of job postings mandate them
  • Secondly, despite the increasing number of people with degrees and the increasing requirement to have one to get your foot in the door, almost 40% of U.S. employers report difficulties in finding graduates with the right skills, which means (somewhat ironically) that many of the above degrees are useless in actually preparing people for work.

Slayback argues (pretty convincingly I think) that a degree is no longer sufficient to guarantee you a job; he also suggests that it may not actually be worth doing one (and in terms of getting you ready for work, I think he’s right, but not necessarily so in terms of the intrinsic worth of the uni experience and knowledge gained).

According to Slayback, in order to be successful, graduates need to get better at signalling their skills through social media, rather than relying on the simple fact that they’ve got a degree to so that for them. He even goes so far as to suggest that the internet itself is actually undermining the value of a degree.

He gives the example of a young man who connected with him on Linked In, and through a Google search, managed to get an insight into what he’d actually achieved, which made the fact that he didn’t have a degree irrelevant.

Personally I think Slayback has a point about the virtues of social media in signalling your skills – if you’re looking to go into a sector that requires you to produce content in any form, them it’s an obvious idea to have a social media platform where you show off that content, through which you can demonstrate your skills.

I’m not so convinced that it’s worth risking not doing a degree, maybe you’re better off doing one, but from day one thinking about how to leverage every essay you write or every project you do into something that you can use in the future to make you more employable…. two birds with one stone and all that….

America’s War in Yemen

Given the correlation between Peacefulness and economic and social development, I’d say there’s a strong argument that the level of peacefulness in a country is one of the most valid indicators of that country’s level of development; it’s also important for the potential of other countries to develop further, given that violence in one country can so often retard development in other countries.

Unfortunately for America, it doesn’t do well on measures of peacefulness. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index (GPI), it ranks a dismal 114th out of 163 countries, down 8 places from the previous year, and bucking the general trend which is for more wealthier countries to be more peaceful (Scandinavia + Canada are towards the top!)

The Global Peace Index includes several indicators to establish its rankings, and so there are many reasons for America’s low peacefulness (and high violence) ranking – the high homicide rate being linked to the national addiction to guns, and neither does its high military and nuclear expenditure, or its involvement in drone-killings abroad.

One recent event, which won’t have been included in the 2017 GPI data, is America’s enhanced role in Saudi Arabia’s current war in Yemen – Following Donald Trump’s recent state visit to Saudi Arabia, The United States is set to become more complicit in this war. Saudi Arabia ranks 132nd on the GPI, Yemen 4th from bottom at 159th.

Amnesty International calls the conflict in Yemen the ‘forgotten war’ – it’s basically a conflict involving one group of Yemenis known as the Huthis who support the former Yemeni president, and a second group who, along with the Saudis, support the existing president. The conflict has been going on since 2015, with civilians caught in the middle.

Amnesty cites the following human toll of the conflict so far:

  • 4 600 Civilians have been killed, 8000 injured
  • 3 Million people have been displaced
  • 18.8 million people currently rely on humanitarian assistance

According to Time, Donald Trump recently agreed $110 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia:

‘The weapons sale was one of the largest in history, totalling close to $110 billion worth of tanks, artillery, radar systems, armoured personnel carriers, Blackhawk helicopters, ships, …Patriot missiles”

The $110 billion figure is almost certainly exaggerated, as it includes the renewal of some existing deals with are ongoing (so no new money changing hands), and some potential, yet to be agreed, future arms-deals, but whatever the exact figure there is sufficient evidence of closer war-links between America and Saudi Arabia:

According to Al-Jazeera, what we do know is that Trump is ramping up arms-sales to the Saudis:

‘Trump is green-lighting sales of precision-guided, air-to-ground missiles that Obama had withheld because of concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and civilian casualties. In addition, Trump is moving forward to replenish and expand the Saudi supply of battle tanks and armoured vehicles, replacing equipment damaged in the Yemen conflict. Separately, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon both announced major sales in connection with Trump’s trip but this seems more in the nature of a promise than a finished deal.”

Somewhat worryingly, is the rather blase attitude displayed to all this by the American politicians involved:

According to Time:

Policy advisor Jared Kushner high-fived National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster as he entered the room where they held talks with Saudi officials. Aide Gary Cohn told pool reporters the deals represented “a lot of money. Big dollars. Big dollars.”

According to Al Jazeera:

“The Saudis are in a war in Yemen and they need weapons. You want to win, you need weapons,” Senator John McCain, a Republican, told Al Jazeera. “We are in a war.”

More worringly still, according to the Ron Paul Liberty Report, the U.S. military is also directly involved in the Saudi – Yemen conflict through advising the Saudi’s on identifying and picking targets to bomb in Yemen and through fuelling Saudi war planes, (first few minutes in the clip below…)

Of course not everyone in America believes that the United States should be involved in the Saudi’s war against Yemen, so I’d hate to tar all Americans with the same violence-brush, but unfortunately for the rational peace lovers, the neoliberals in power are using the machinery of the America state (ironically for neoliberals) to escalate violence in the Middle East.

SO if  we are to include peacefulness in our assessment of how developed a country is, then on the most recent evidence of the Saudi arms deal, we’d have to conclude that the United States has regressed even further than the Global Peace Index suggests.

 

 

 

 

 

Education in America

Key statistics on education in America, and the key features of the American education system including primary, secondary and tertiary education, the national curriculum and the examinations system.

This is part of a new set of posts designed to help students assess how developed countries are in terms of some of the key indicators of development such as economics, inequality, education, health, gender equality, peacefulness and so on…

America is an interesting case study because it is the wealthiest nation on earth in terms of total GDP, and very wealthy in terms of GNI per capita, but these high levels of wealth and income do not translate into social development for all.

This is a summary post at first, to be expanded on later…

America: Key Education Statistics

Core education statistics taken from World Bank data 

  • Pre-primary net enrollment rate – 63.8%
  • Primary enrollment rate – 93.1%
  • Secondary enrollment rate -90.5%
  • Tertiary enrollment rate – 86.7%
  • Out of school children – 1.5 million !
  • Government expenditure on education as percentage of GDP – 5.2%.

Education stats taken from other sources

Pisa Rankings (2015)

  • Science – 24th
  • Maths – 25th
  • Reading – 39th

Key Features of the American Education System 

Kindergarten, Primary, and Secondary Education in America

Schooling is compulsory for all children in the United States, with every child being entitled to a minimum of 12 years publicly funded education. Some states add on an additional year of pre-primary ‘Kindergarten) education, and the school leaving age also varies from state to state: some states allow students to leave school between 14–17 with parental permission, other states require students to stay in school until age 18.

American education

Children attend primary school from the ages of 6-11 where they are taught basic subjects, typically in a diverse, mixed ability class, with one teacher.

Children attend secondary school from the ages of 12-17, which is subdivided into junior high-school and senior high school. Here students are typically taught in different classes for different subjects and are allowed some degree of freedom to choose ‘elective subjects’.

While there is no overarching national curriculum, education in secondary school generally consists of 2–4 years of each of science, Mathematics, English, Social sciences, Physical education; some years of a foreign language and some form of art education, as well as the usual PSHE.

Many high schools provide ‘Honors classes’ for the more academically able during the 11th or 12th grade of high school and/ or offer the International Baccalaureate (IB).

The National (And Hidden) Curriculum

While there isn’t a national curriculum in America, there are some very detailed national common core standards in subject areas such as English and Maths – so why schools aren’t told what books they should actually get students to read, or how to teach maths, the standards dictate that they must spend a certain amount of time teaching these and other subjects…. When I say detailed, they really are – the standards on English stretch to over 60 pages.

In terms of the Hidden Curriculum – 50% of schools require their students to pledge allegiance as part of their daily routine, which I guess is an attempt to enforce a sense of national identity.

If you’re American I imagine this gives you a warm glowing feeling, if you’re not you’re probably fluctuating between an uncomfortable feeling of nausea and wondering WTF this has got to do with ‘liberty’. NB note the doting parents looking on, and that YouTube is full of this sort of thing.  

 

Differential Educational Achievement in America

The education system clearly doesn’t work for everyone equally – around 3 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 drop out of high school each year, a rate of 6.6 percent as of 2012.

Unsurprisingly, there are considerable ethnic differences in educational achievement in America, as this data from 2009 suggests:

ethnicity education America

 

Sources (those not included in links above!)

Wikipedia entry – Education in the United States

An overview of American education