Since the Harrison Act in 1914, the national policy for managing substance abuse in the United States has been prohibition. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act began the War on Drugs, although under President Richard Nixon most of the funding went to treatment rather than enforcement. There have been many other legislative attempts to reduce drug and alcohol use in our nation. Yet despite these increasingly harsh laws, drug overdoses– an indicator of overall drug usage– have continued to skyrocket. In 1970, there were 7,101 drug overdoses. In 2020 there were over 90,000. The mortality rate from overdose has jumped from about 1 per 100,000 people in 1979 to 21.6 in 2019.
Clearly prohibition isn’t working.
Is there a better way? Consider the experience of Portugal, which has seen drug use (as measured by usage in the previous 12 months), overdose deaths, HIV, Hepatitis C, and drug-related social costs drop since decriminalizing drugs in 2001.
And yet these two very different national experiences were predictable– and should have been predicted by anyone who has studied economics.
If you’ve taken an economics class, you probably remember the “guns and butter” charts. These demonstrate that because production capacity is limited, producing more of one thing requires producing less of something else. But they also tell us something about price: If more guns are produced, the supply of butter drops and the price goes up. This makes it more profitable to produce butter– an economic opportunity. It’s also an opportunity to invent new substitutes for butter in order to fill the demand.
Now imagine we replace these two products with two others: milk and heroin. As the supply of heroin drops, the price goes up, making it more profitable to supply. And there’s incentive to find and supply substitutes, like oxycodone and fentanyl. Consider that an oxycodone bought by prescription costs about 33 cents, but on the street it sells for $20– a gross profit of 6,000%! That’s quite an incentive. As you can see, prohibition on heroin actually encourages increased supply because it becomes so much more profitable to sell.
But there are other economic behaviors that tell us prohibition should fail. For example, when something is scarce, people want it more. It becomes a status symbol. Which is more attractive to wear: a rare shirt you bought at the concert of your favorite band or a common t-shirt purchased at Walmart? Many people would choose the one that no one else has. Rarity adds value.
And prohibition removes any possibility of regulating content or safety. So long as the substance is outside governmental control, its quality relies solely on the ethics of the provider. And if the substance is illegal, the provider is by definition a criminal whose ethics are open to question. With so much money involved– and a desperate market for the product– customer satisfaction isn’t much of a concern. This is why so many overdoses are linked to adulteration. A poster in a New Hampshire hospital, above, warns that much of the heroin has been contaminated with carfentanil, an animal tranquillizer that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. People are dying because the drug they are addicted to is illegal.
From the standpoint of economics, so long as there is a demand– for drugs or for any product– there will be a supply. The more we try to stamp out that supply, the more the price goes up and the more incentive there is to provide the product. We cannot reduce demand by reducing supply. That’s not how economics works.
On the other hand, when something is readily available, in the absence of other factors like billion-dollar marketing campaigns, it becomes less appealing.
There are, of course, many other factors driving the addiction crisis in this country. But so long as the substances are illegal, we have virtually no way to control the social cost of this epidemic, nor to limit the tragic loss of life.
One of the aspects we rarely consider in American politics is culture. We ignore culture because of the myth that America is just one culture. But it isn’t. New England and New York, geographically close, are worlds apart culturally. And the South and the West are different again. California is it’s own unique collection of cultures, with the northern part of the state differing from the south.
While it’s difficult to generalize America’s regional cultures, there is one distinct pattern: urban and rural cultures are very different from one another.
Tied to the Land
As my last post explained, many historical rural occupations are tied to the land. Agriculture, mining, manufacturing– even modern additions like prisons and casinos– are stationary. This has been true been ever since agriculture was invented. Rural people tend to be stationary. They develop cohesive communities where everyone knows everyone, and has for generations.
Wealth is often measured in land. Historically, this was because more land meant more income from production. But land has its own intrinsic value, too, and not just in financial terms. When you live in the home your grandparents built, or when your ancestors are buried nearby, there’s a psychological connection that cannot be duplicated.
In such an environment, change is not always welcomed. But the interstate system that began in the 1950s brought change, which continues to this day. Commuters from the city move to rural areas, bringing their urban culture, their urban demands, and sometimes their urban problems. One of the most difficult conflicts is when city folks who have relocated to rural community begin to demand city services like streetlights and sidewalks.
Yet there’s an even deeper conflict that often remains unspoken: “We don’t know these people.” Yes, we may meet each other. But we haven’t grown up together, known each other’s parents and grandparents, and developed a bond of respect and mutual responsibility that comes with facing survival together. Don’t get me wrong: there are feuds and judgements galore in a rural town. But when our roof cracked under four feet of wet snow when I was a kid, even neighbors we didn’t like came out in the middle of the night to shovel off the snow.
But our neighbors didn’t live too close,. They lived their lives, and we lived ours. If one of them wanted to put up a ramshackle building in their backyard, who cared? We might snicker, but we wouldn’t protest. Space offered protection from whatever eyesores they (or we) might erect. Your life was, at least ostensibly, your business. People might gossip, but were unlikely to interfere. Of course, anything too outrageous would be remembered and retold for at least two generations!
Now imagine the relationship we had with our police– one part-time officer in those days. He was our neighbor. His job was to keep the peace– and generate revenue by writing speeding tickets for out of state tourists who were in a hurry. He knew everyone. He didn’t want trouble. I doubt he ever pulled his gun in the line of duty, except perhaps to deal with wayward wildlife.
This is not to say life was idyllic in a small town. Alcoholism and spousal and child abuse occurred, most often unseen. The school bus driver was having an affair with a local farmer– a badly kept secret. And poverty was rampant, even if most were too proud to admit it. These, too, are characteristics of rural culture: we keep up appearances, even when everyone knows the truth, simply because everyone knows you.
Things were different in Los Angeles. I learned quickly that reaching for the glove box to have your registration ready when you got pulled over, the polite thing to do in a small town, was a bad idea in the city. That was the first time I had a gun pointed at my head. Because in the city, no one knows anyone. In 25 years and over a dozen moves, I rarely knew my neighbors. The cops didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. And because they didn’t know me, I was a potential threat.
Two urban friends were shocked when they visited me in a small town some years later as I talked to a couple of sheriff’s deputies at my home. “That was amazing!” one said. “You talked to them for almost 20 minutes– and they never once put their hands on their guns!”
That was the response of two white-collar professionals. Perhaps you can imagine how people of color experience the police in a city. One friend, who is black, had her 15-year-old, honor student son put face down on the pavement in his own driveway because the police thought he didn’t belong in that neighborhood. Another, also black, was beaten with a baseball bat by her neighbors– and she got arrested.
In my years in the city, I didn’t know my neighbors because I gravitated toward people with common interests. That’s how it works. Surfers hang out with surfers. People who fish find each other. So do people who drink. Liberals hang out with liberals. There are literally millions of people in a relatively small space. You don’t have to be friendly with your neighbors.
And people aren’t tied to the land. In fact since cities were invented, they have attracted the landless. This means people are more likely to move from place to pace for jobs or cheaper housing.
Because they don’t know each other– and because they are more mobile and can relocate if things get bad– they have less sense of responsibility to each other. I knew an accountant who was great at getting clients but terrible at doing the work. He remained successful because there was an endless pool of potential clients. And when I offered to help an old lady carry her groceries up the stairs, she gave me a quizzical look and observed, “You’re not from here, are you.”
Not surprisingly, crime rates tend to be higher in urban areas. There are other contributing factors, including dense areas of poverty, despair that leads to drug and alcohol use, and greater availability of opportunity.
And this leads to a strange paradox: people in the city want things to change for the better in a general sense, but are less likely to help their neighbor.
There are advantages to the city. The economics of scale make many things easier, including making a living. There are services that a small town can’t support, which is why, for example, autism rates are 10% lower and diagnosed at a later stage of development in rural areas as compared with urban, and autism services are more difficult to come by. And it’s why rural people often have to travel to a city for more specialized medical treatment.
And in the city there are people with your interests, no matter how obscure they might be. Stamp collectors have huge gatherings. Model railroaders build modules and join to link hundreds together at a time. No matter your hobby, in a city of millions there will be at least hundreds with the same interest.
The Chasm Between Worlds
I could write a book on rural-urban differences. But here’s one last example. In the city, if you don’t lock your door and someone breaks in, that’s your fault. Not locking your door is carelessness, and you’ll get very little sympathy. But in many rural communities, people still don’t lock their doors– and they don’t want to. They want their neighbor to be able to get an egg out of their fridge if needed. Some even leave their car running while the shop at the grocery store or pick up their mail. If someone breaks in and steals from them, they see it as an assault on their community and their culture. And neither group can comprehend how the other lives that way.
Hopefully this post has highlighted a few of the more important differences in culture. And these are important, because without understanding culture we can’t understand the political symbols being wielded. We have to know the underlying story behind the symbols.
Take abortion, for example. To urban liberals, it’s a symbol of women’s freedom and casting off the strangling yoke of religion. But to rural conservatives, it is a symbol of instability for family and community. To even begin to discuss the issue, we have to understand what the it means to the person holding the opinion!
Or guns: to an urban dweller, guns are scary because you don’t know the person who has one (because you don’t know anyone outside your own circle of friends). And you don’t trust them because you don’t trust anyone you don’t know. And gun crime tends to be higher to begin with. That’s reality in the city. But for a rural person, who lives in a place where gun crime may be almost unknown, banning guns says, “You don’t trust me!” And in a rural community, reputation and trust are everything.
I could make this list much longer but I believe I’ve made my point: There is no single American culture. Much of our political divisiveness stems from a simple cultural misunderstanding– from the chasm between two worlds that neither recognizes is different.
The greatest threat to our nation just may be climate change. Yet many conservatives, especially rural conservatives, don’t believe it exists. Or they don’t believe it’s caused by human activity. With almost unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, how can rural people deny it? The answer is simple: They can’t afford to.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. They are skeptical of science, and for good reasons. Environmentalism in general has often taken a combative approach to rural America, sometimes from woefully-uneducated viewpoints. Economic policy, supposedly based in science, has left them poorer. And there’s also been a shift in conservative values from preservation to short-term gain.
The Remaking of Conservatism
As a child, I grew up in one of the most conservatives states. Back then, conservatives believed in preservation– of tradition, resources, community, and wealth. You saved your money. You preserved the land for your children. And you helped your neighbors because they would help you when you needed it. These are values at least as old as the first European settlements.
But that changed. President Reagan ushered in an era of deficit spending, self-centeredness, and short-term profits. The reasons for this exceed the scope of this post. But they changed the landscape of American politics, in part by changing the economic landscape.
Since 1980 the economy has generally been more favorable to resource exploitation for profit of major corporations. This hasn’t always been a partisan issue, either. President Obama, a Democrat, lifted the ban on offshore oil drilling.
Likewise debt, rather than something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, has become a good thing. President Reagan was the first big spender, almost tripling the national debt. This was the largest non-war increase in American history. But Presidents Bush (43) and Obama also raised the deficit by historic amounts (54% and 74% respectively). President Trump, despite his promise to eliminate the national debt, has added 36% in just the three years before Covid hit.
American consumers are also encouraged to spend more than they make. The Federal Reserve panics when Americans save too much. That’s how the economy stays afloat: it only works if we all spend more than we have.
This leaves those at the bottom of the economic pyramid struggling to survive. Environmental preservation becomes a luxury they cannot afford.
Ill-conceived environmental policies haven’t helped matters. One of the best known is the campaign to save the wild mustang. It’s a campaign that sells well: wild, majestic horses being removed from their land and slaughtered for dog food at the behest of evil cattle ranchers. But of course it’s not that simple.
The wild mustang is an invasive species, introduced (like so many others) by European colonists. It consumes range land that would otherwise be available not only for cattle, but for native species. Managed grazing can actually improve rangelands. In balance, wild mustangs could coexist on the range with other species. But they are not in balance. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for maintaining the herds, estimates that 72,000 mustangs live on land that can support only 26,000. The result: range land can’t support other species like antelope and deer, much less managed grazing by small ranchers whose living depends on access to these federal lands.
This is a good place to recall that the federal government owns most of the land in the American West, including 87% of Nevada, 65% of Utah, 62% of Idaho, and 53% of Oregon. Federal land use policies remain a huge issue in these states and others.
But wild horses aren’t the only issue. Other local issues feed contempt for environmental policies. For example, the Utah Prairie Dog is listed as an endangered species. By law, any prairie dog on your land cannot be killed, but must be relocated. Where they can be relocated remains a mystery, and there is no money to pay for relocation. Yet an infestation can ruin grazing land in a matter of months. Over the course of two years, I watched a breeding pair move to a 20 acre field and expand into a colony of dozens, devastating all the vegetation on what had been healthy range land.
Examples like this abound: decisions driven by passionate but uninformed people with little knowledge of or regard for local realities.
John was a computer expert who lived in a small rural town. For years, he did computer repairs and other small jobs. His wife worked as a waitress. They barely scraped by supporting their four children. Then the oil boom started in North Dakota. He began commuting, three weeks on and two weeks off. And he made four times as much money as he had before.
A year later, a company began putting in solar panels on plots of land ranging from 10 to 40 acres. They hired hundreds of employees to put them in. The jobs lasted up to two years. Then they ended. It takes far fewer employees to maintain solar panels than it does to install them.
This is the dilemma of clean energy. It doesn’t require constant extraction. From an environmental standpoint, that’s great. But from an employment standpoint, it’s a problem– especially in rural areas already short on jobs.
Consider the campaign against coal, often considered one of the dirtiest fuels. Coal mining employs about 52,000 people nationwide– not a significant number. But 30,000 of these are in West Virginia alone, and coal contributes over $6.5 billion to the state’s economy. That’s roughly 10% of the state’s GDP!
When we talk about a shift to clean energy, the obvious question is, “What are these folks going to do?” There are vague promises of tech jobs and retraining, which may or may not be practical for the education level of those involved– if these jobs materialize at all. But, in an environment where non-energy jobs are scarce, people worry not so much about the future as about putting food on the table today. A call for clean energy is a call to devastate the economy of several states and eliminate good-paying jobs in the areas that most need them.
We should not forget that many of the policies that have challenged rural America were touted as based in science. From globalization to endangered species, from clean energy to the deficit economy, science– at least as it has been wielded by those with political power– has not been kind to rural people.
Are many rural people skeptical? Yes, for obvious reasons. They’ve been burned already. But more importantly, they are desperate and afraid. And the answers they’ve been given by those who promote these policies fail to address their needs.
As our population shifted from rural to urban, so did our economic profile. Two main shifts were at play. First, the national economy overall shifted from production to services. Second, as tax rates dropped, the wealthy became wealthier much faster than the rest of us. Whether we like it or not, both of these trends contributed to where we are now.
The Service Economy
Consider the change from production to services. A production economy requires a large investment in fixed assets: land, buildings, and equipment. It’s stationary, which means it is tied to the land. This is obviously the case for farming and mining. But even manufacturing plants are difficult to relocate. A production economy tends to favor a geographically fixed population and availability of land, which fits the profile of rural America.
A service economy, on the other hand, tends to require fewer assets. Yes, there are cars, vans, and trucks– all mobile by definition. There may be certain pieces of large equipment. But in general a service business can be relocated much more easily than a factory, farm, or mine. And service businesses require less money to start. What they need most is a ready market of customers, making them ideally suited to an urban environment. Service jobs have tended to grow faster and be more lucrative in urban areas than in rural places where there are fewer customers to service.
Globalization has also affected job distribution. Yes, it has flooded our markets with cheaper goods, which is good. Unless you’re competing with them for a living. The same asset-heavy businesses most often found in rural areas– manufacturing, farming, and mining– now have to compete with goods produced with far cheaper labor overseas. A typical worker in a Mexican maquiladora plant makes 80 cents an hour. A typical worker in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka makes $2 per day. Workers in some other countries make even less.
This trend has helped drive the shift toward a service economy, which provides for needs that cannot be filled from a distance. But for rural workers, globalization has meant falling incomes. Manufacturing has moved overseas, and locally-owned stores are replaced by Wal-Mart, Staples, and Home Depot. Those who once worked for themselves and employed others now work for minimum wage at the local chain store.
At the same time, wealth has migrated upward to the wealthiest Americans. As the graph below shows, the share of income among the poorest Americans has dropped by about 10%. But the most dramatic change is that the share of income taken home by the wealthiest families has almost doubled, while the share belonging to the middle class has fallen by a third.
Incomes overall are gradually rising, so this hasn’t made as much difference in service industries. But in rural areas, where wealth is measured in assets, this has created a concentration not just of money but of land as well. The resulting power imbalance has had far-reaching effects. Farm subsidies, supposedly intended to help the average American farmer, flow overwhelmingly into the pockets of a handful of giant agricultural corporations. This gives them an unfair advantage over the family farm.
Not surprisingly, the number of small farms has shrunk, often absorbed by these corporate farmers. This shift away from farming represents a massive change in rural economics. In 1953, nearly half of all rural Americans lived on farms. By 2003, that had fallen to 5%.
This shift away from small farms has left an employment vacuum, and led to a search for new sources of jobs. Three major sources have been casinos, prisons, and the military. According to a report by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), “There are now casinos in 140 nonmetro counties in 23 states… ” The report also documents the rise in prison construction in rural areas. And, they report, rural people are 30% more likely to serve in the military than urban dwellers.
What it means
These economic shifts have had significant impacts on rural Americans. Poverty rates are higher in rural areas, although nearly half of those who are poor work. Disability rates are also higher. PRB reports,
Poverty hangs on in 444 nonmetro counties at levels higher than 20 percent. That means… that a fifth or more of the population lives in economic distress.
There is significant poverty across all ethnic groups. But the largest ethnic group among America’s poor is one we hear little about: non-Hispanic whites, who comprise 44% of America’s poor. It’s easy to overlook the magnitude of white poverty. As a percentage of ethnic group, only 10% of whites are poor compared with 25% of blacks, 24% of Native Americans, and 23% of Hispanics. But whites as a whole are a much larger group. That 10% translates to 19 million people!
It is easy to see how these economic shift begins to impact political views. Less corporate regulation (especially “morality” regulation), a justice system focused on incarceration rather than rehabilitation, and a well-funded military are not just planks in a platform for those living in rural America. They are the difference between employment and unemployment, between surviving and not surviving.
In the past 40 years, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on the War on Drugs in an effort to eliminate supply. Yet drug overdoses are up over 1,200%. We’re losing the war. And not for lack of trying.
We’re losing the war because the very premise of it is flawed.
Trying to solve the drug problem by eliminating the supply presumes, as many conservatives believe, that drug addiction is a choice. Eliminate the supply and people will make better choices.
It’s like those candy displays at the cash register of your local store: you want it because it’s there. It’s tempting. That’s called an impulse buy. And if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t keep doing it.
But drugs are not an impulse buy. Yes, the first time a person uses is clearly a choice, unless it’s given by a medical professional. And that does happen.
But once a person becomes addicted, the drug fills a need that nothing else does. It’s no longer an impulse buy. It’s a requirement.
As I argue in my book, The Soul of an Addict, for an addict the drug provides more than just relief from withdrawals and from past traumas and pains. It provides certain basic human needs which the user has not found anywhere else. These include identity, purpose, meaning for life, structure, and a moral code consistent with these.
Without the drug, in the absence of a suitable alternative, the person is miserable. They’re not waiting for an impulse buy. They are actively looking for relief, and they will do anything and pay anything to get it.
This is a ready-made market, a demand for the substance. And, as anyone who has taken an economics class knows, where there is a demand there will be a supply. Scarcity and risk cause the price to go up. But the person who needs drugs will find a way to pay that price, because they quite literally believe they can’t live without the drug. And that means the methods they use to obtain money may cross the line of legality, from theft to prostitution– and worse.
Is it even possible to stamp out the availability of drugs?
I say no, and here’s why.
Singapore is a small, island nation off the southern tip of Malaysia. It is ideally suited to control what crosses its borders because there are very few ways in or out. And Singapore has one of the toughest drug smuggling laws ion the world. Their arrival card makes it clear: the penalty for smuggling drugs is death. And they’re not kidding: smugglers are executed.
If anyone could eliminate the supply if drugs, it would be Singapore. Yet they had 14 drug overdoses in 2017. Their rate of overdose has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Yes, that’s far better than the U.S. rate of overdoses. Singapore’s is 0.25 per 100,000 people; ours is 18.75. They also have better health care and social services and less wealth inequality than we do, which would tend to drive down the rate of drug abuse and overdose.
But, even with supposedly absolute control and strict penalties, drugs are still available in Singapore. And if they can’t stamp them out with limited access points and draconian penalties, how do we expect to?
The War on Drugs is doomed to fail because it’s impossible to address the problem on the supply side. So long as there is a demand, someone will take the risk to make money by providing a supply. (Singapore’s penalty is death, yet people stillrisk it!)
And we can’t address it by locking up those who use drugs. We’ve spent trillions of dollars trying. Our prisons are full. Yet the problem keeps getting worse.
There’s got to be a better way.
And there is, but we’re not going to like it.
We’re not going to like it because it calls into question our post-modern ethos of consumerism, the whole premise that life can be fulfilling because of what we buy. That ethos is false, yet that’s what it takes to keep our economy afloat. People have to keep buying. When people start saving money instead, the Federal Reserve gets nervous. They need us to be happy consumers, floating in a sea of debt buying stuff we don’t need (but think we do).
Some of us may be satisfied with this purpose for life some of the time. But the fallacy is revealed in the rise of drug overdoses, alcohol deaths, and suicides. Consumerism doesn’t answer the big questions in life. Like, “What is it all for?”
That’s the realm of religion, not social policy. And religion is something society doesn’t prescribe for us. In fact, it has increasingly fallen out of favor. Over the past 40 years, the number of Americans who identify their religious affiliation as “None” has risen from 7% to 21%.
But even that number may be optimistic. I’ve been to many churches where the point of going to church is to go to church. It’s what we do. Yes, there’s a vague message that we should live good lives, but no specific guidance for doing so.
I’ve been to other churches which focus on what happens after we die. For someone like me, a recovering addict, this fails to answer the burning question of my life: how do I live now? (And if the afterlife is so much better, isn’t that an argument for a sooner death?)
Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that a religion provides identity, meaning, structure for life, and a moral code. If that is so, then much of what we experience in church fails to meet the requirements of a religion. It doesn’t provide these basic human needs. No wonder the fastest growing religion in America is “None”! And no wonder deaths of despair are rising.
Doing Something Different
There is an answer to the drug problem. The Twelve Step programs recognize it. Every aspect of those programs is designed to give people identity, purpose, structure, and a sense of belonging. Although most of these programs aren’t religious, they do a better job of practicing a religion, in the sociological sense, than some churches.
Why can’t churches do what the Twelve Step programs do? They could. So could non-religious groups. But that would mean bucking the national religion of consumerism– and potentially being branded un-American, or worse. It would mean pushing back against the long-embraced idea that religion belongs in the private sphere. If your purpose and structure for life comes from your religion, it’s going to show.
Do we really believe that it’s better to spend trillions of dollars on trying to stamp out supply and incarcerate users, no matter the price tag? Is that a necessary “overhead expense” to maintain our consumer economy? Or is that just what we’ve always done?
In either case, it isn’t working. The problem is getting worse.
“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them…” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll,which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:3-5, 9-10)
With 3% of the population and some of the best medical technology in the world, the U.S. has 27% of the world’s Coronavirus cases and 23% of the world’s Coronavirus deaths. Something is dreadfully wrong. When will we ask what it is?
During these times of crisis, the EU and its member states are working together and helping each other. (ECCEU Report)
The answer is relatively simple, and can be summed up in one word: greed. Greed is good, right? Gordon Gekko said so. So did Ayn Rand.
This may explain why our nation took the steps it did: downplaying the risk, being slow to close and quick to reopen, dragging its feet on testing, refusing to implement contact tracing, and even refusing to wear masks. Our own convenience has become an idol, more important than saving the lives of people we don’t know. Our own optimism has become an idol, outweighing the risk of sickness and death to those we do know and love. Our money has become more important than even our own lives.
Robber: Your money or your life!
Victim: Take my life, please. I’ll need my money for my old age!
The Bible says something different. While our churches argue about homosexuality, a topic that is arguably mentioned four times in the Bible, there are literally hundreds of instructions about the evils of not sharing our wealth. These range from Genesis (4:9-11) and the books of the law (Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus have too many to list here) to the prophets (again too many to list), the Gospel (ditto), and even Proverbs (e.g. 14:31; 19:17; 31:8-9) and the Psalms (e.g. 41:1, 82:3). We are to share our food and clothing (Prov 22:9; Is 58:6-7; Lk 14:13-14), even with immigrants (Dt 27:129), and even those whom we may believe are from a criminal class (Lk 10:25-37). Accumulation of wealth is an idol condemned (Is 5:8, Lk 12:16-21; 1 Tim 6:9-11).
Did God send the Coronavirus as a plague to punish an unjust nation? It’s possible (Dt 28:21, Lam 3:37). But in truth, the punishment we now receive we created ourselves. Cornonavirus showcases the fallacy of our “greed is good” culture. We wrote this future, God didn’t.
But will we listen to God now? God told us mortals what is good (Micah 6:8). We are called to put the good of the whole first, not our haircuts (buy a set of clippers here) or our gyms (try walking, or split your neighbor’s firewood). We’re called to wear a freaking mask–even if it’s only a little effective, every case we prevent avoids another potential death! We’re called to support widespread testing and, much as it rankles my libertarian conservatism, contact tracing. (Come on, folks– the government already knows where you’ve been because they have access to your cell phone location, and they can listen to your conversations anytime they want! The intelligence agencies already know who we’re in contact with, they just don’t tell the health agencies.)
And we’re called to go out less. Yes, I’m going crazy with the kids home all the time. Yes, I occasionally have to substitute an ingredient or rethink a meal plan because I’m out of something and don’t run to the store every day anymore. Yes, I hate Zoom meetings and miss seeing people in person.
But the longer we avoid doing these things, the longer this will go on and the worse it will get.
Will we listen, or will we continue to be a rebellious nation?
Every picture tells a story, but sometimes they tell more than one. Often the story we see is based on where we’re sitting. Because the view can look very different from different perspectives.
Take this graph, for example. It shows the number of households in each income bracket for whites and blacks in 2018. You can see that the household income for blacks, shown in red, is much more likely to be lower than higher. The outer ring, which shows the number of household earning less than $30 thousand per year, is significantly larger than the others. According to the Census Bureau, 6 million black households, or 37%, are in this lower bracket.
Based on this, we can expect blacks to be less likely to have less access to health care, education, legal help, and a wide variety of other resources essential to wellbeing. And statistics bear this out. Early reports are showing, for example, that blacks and other people of color are more likely to die of the coronavirus than whites.
But there’s another story in this picture, one that’s easy to overlook: There are far more poor white people than poor black people. According to the Census Bureau, there are 21 million white households earning less than $30,000 per year– more than three times as many! But that represents a much lower proportion (21%) of white households.
Both stories are true. Which is more important? That depends on where you’re sitting. Obviously if you’re in that lower bracket, the story that describes you and your community is most important.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority (92%) of black households live in urban areas. Only 8% live outside metropolitan districts. On the other hand, 15% of whites live outside urban areas. And rural whites are more likely to be poor than urban whites.
So are rural blacks. Though a small minority of black households (1.4 million) are rural, they are far more likely (57%) to be in the bottom bracket. Numerically, the majority of low income black families live in cities (5.6 million vs 800,000 in rural areas).
And there are almost as many low-income white families (4.4 million) living in rural areas.
You can see how these statistics would pit two narratives against each other. Yes, black households are more likely to have lower incomes, and that’s an injustice that needs to be addressed. Yes, white families are less likely to have lower incomes, but that’s little consolation if you’re in one of the 21 million families that does.
Imagine, when people talk about helping one of these two groups, what the reactions are in the other group. “Why are you helping them and not us?” Because in this time of highly unequal wealth, when we talk about helping one group, we’re quite literally taking food from the mouths of the other. There just aren’t that many jobs that pay well.
If you think that doesn’t contribute to political polarization, think again. One side sees low-income whites as privileged racists, and the other sees income disappearing and a lot of effort to give what’s left to someone else.
The real problem is twofold: people of color have less access to resources, and resources are made more scarce by unequal distribution. This is not an either/or problem. It’s a both/and problem. We need to continue to break down economic barriers for people of color. AND we need to ensure that every family has the opportunity to make a living wage.
Otherwise, we’re pitting low income families against each other. And that rarely ends well.
The purpose of our social service system is to help people climb out of poverty, right? But too often, it does the opposite. Let’s take a fictitious but representative example.
Bob is married and has two young children. He has a decent job that provides health insurance. His wife is a full-time mom. They live in a 3-bedroom home that costs $1,200 per month– a little higher than the average 3-bedroom apartment, but not much. Their utilities cost $300 per month. They get by, but they haven’t saved much.
Bob loses his job. Without a job he can’t pay his rent, much less afford the $600 per month payment for COBRA health insurance. Fortunately, his family becomes eligible for food stamps ($650 per month) and Medicaid. He can also apply for HUD vouchers to help with his rent, but the waiting list is over a year out. He can’t move to a cheaper place because he has no income. What landlord in their right mind will rent to someone without a job?
Bob is having trouble finding a position that pays as well as his last one. So he takes a $12 per hour part-time job– a decent paying job in these parts– that leaves him time to pound the pavement looking for a better one. He now earns $1,500 per month. That’s just enough to cover his rent and utilities, but not gas or car insurance for the family’s (one) car, or clothes for interviews, or anything else. And his food stamps get cut to $450 because he’s now earning money. And the more he makes, the more his food stamps get cut. At $2,000 per month, which is just enough to get by with food stamps. they phase out completely. If he replaces the $650 per month subsidy with income, he loses his Medicaid. Then, not only does he have to come up with a premium for insurance, but his family faces a $10,000 per year deductible. And he starts to owe income taxes, which aren’t taken into account for social programs.
To break even, Bob now has to earn $50,000 per year, or $24 per hour. Or he has to find a job that provides health insurance. Neither is common in this area. The median income in the city is $33,807, which is 27% lower than the average for the nation. And if Bob’s wife looks for a job, they’ll have to pay for childcare. Childcare Aware lists this state’s average cost of childcare for an infant and a toddler at $19,396 per year— the equivalent of $9 per hour at a full-time job. Is it worth it to have Bob’s wife work for a net increase in income of maybe $3 per hour, while putting the kids with strangers for the day?
But let’s back up a little. Is Bob better off making less than $1,000 per month and getting enough food stamps to feed his family and have health insurance (Medicaid), or making enough to pay the rent and not being able to feed his family or pay for medical care? Ultimately Bob faces a choice between feeding his family and paying his rent. Neither is an attractive proposition. Where is the incentive to earn, when earning actually causes you to lose ground?
This state is not unusual. In fact, New Jersey has a higher cost of living and a lower earning threshold for social services. So does Pennsylvania. In Arkansas, the Medicaid limit is $114 per month!
How does this help get people out of poverty? If you can’t drive to an interview, if you can’t afford presentable clothes, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is. You’re going to wind up in a job like eviscerating chickens for $12 per hour. Or security for $10 per hour. Or a minimum wage job doing manual labor. And the inevitable medical expenses become long-term debt, putting you further in the hole.
Yes, unemployment is low. But the majority of jobs where I live won’t support a family. And if you lose the one you have… well, welcome to the world of perpetual need.
This wasn’t going to be my next post on the subject of addiction, but the mass shootings over the weekend changed my mind. At least one of the shootings was racially motivated.
What do mass shootings and the alt-right have to do with addiction? I believe they stem from common causes, namely a national ethos that gives no meaning to life other than accumulation of wealth, and a rising wealth inequality that makes the national purpose unattainable for increasing numbers of people.
But first, let’s start with some demographics. The alt-right draws primarily from the white working class. Mass shooters come primarily from the white working class. According to Ann Case and Angus Deaton, “deaths of despair,” which include overdose, alcoholism, and suicide, are rising fastest in the white working class. To understand any of these these problems, we have to ask ourselves what’s happening in the white working class.
Case and Deaton have done significant research on this. Focusing on deaths of despair, they note that only in the white working class have deaths of despair risen in proportion to the drop in income. In this demographic group, there is a direct correlation (or, technically, an inverse correlation) between income and morbidity (death). Why this correlation does not exist in other demographic groups is an interesting question, but beyond the scope of this post. I suspect minorities, because of a history of being left out of American prosperity, are less invested in the “American Dream,” and thus less despairing as the American Dream slips away, but I have no proof of that.
Statistically, whites are more likely to sink into despair over economic factors. And economic factors have not been kind to the working class over the past few decades. This has resulted in decreased life expectancy. Since 1979, opioid overdoses among whites have increased more than twice as much as opioid overdoses among blacks, from a slightly lower rate to a rate twice as high. The suicide rate among whites is more than twice as high as any other demographic group, with the exception of Native Americans who have a higher rate.
We can speculate about the cause of this despair. Unlike other economically excluded groups, the white working class used to believe they could attain the American Dream. It’s increasingly clear that they can’t. They have lost a reason for being, or telos–the main telos put forward by our economically-motivated society.
Moreover, whites are more likely to adopt Evangelical religious beliefs. Some 76% of evangelical Protestants are white. It’s difficult to generalize about this group because there is significant diversity, but there are some typical commonalities. At an Evangelical church I once attended, the pastor was fond of saying, “Any conversation about the Gospel begins with one question: Are you sure you’re going to Heaven?” This focus on afterlife was accompanied by attention to grace to the exclusion of works. They had us memorize Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” But never did I hear anyone read the next verse: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
What does this have to do with morbidity? Consider a person who finds himself or herself in despair. That person looks for solace at church. The church’s answer is, “It will be better in Heaven.” Is that not incentive to hurry the process along? Add to this a persistent link to the prosperity Gospel–if God has blessed you, you will prosper–and the religious outlook for the white working class isn’t exactly stellar.
Okay, you say. Perhaps this explains the rise in deaths of despair. But what does any of this have to do with the alt-right?
I’m glad you asked. Patrick Forcher and Nour Kteilly at the University of Arkansas have compiled a psychological profile of the alt-right. In their summary, the researchers noted that alt-right supporters:
Were more likely to be white
Were less likely to have more than a high school education
Were not optimistic about the current state of the economy.
These characteristics were shared by non-alt-right Trump supporters as well. Thus, the alt-right is, as expected, a subset of the white working class that has been negatively affected by the upward redistribution of wealth.
One big difference between the two was that alt-right supporters were more optimistic about the future of the economy. Their alt-right beliefs gave them hope for the future, much more so than their non-alt-right peers. This suggests that the rise of alt-right is a response to their deteriorating economic status.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Fascism grew in Germany during the Great Depression that devastated the German economy. Forscher and Kteilly note similarities between the rise of the alt-right and the rise of the British National Party among the depressed working class.
What this does tell us is that a broad spectrum of American problems, including suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses, alt-right activity, and, I maintain, mass shootings, are directly related to the economic decline of the white working class.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. Clearly there are factors that drive this demographic’s symptoms, especially compared with other demographic groups that are even more economically excluded. For one view of these causes, I recommend Joe Bagaent’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, which documents the decline in influence of rural America. The losses of the white working class are not just economic, they are political as well.
Liberals may not like that this formerly-privileged group is taking up more of our attention than other groups that have never been privileged. But it is historically true that those who are losing privilege are a greater threat than those who ever had it. This is an issue we need to address.
But more than that, we live in a society that values our existence in dollars. Under this philosophy, economic loss can only lead to despair. There is no other source of hope.
As a Christian, I look to the Gospel. We are not judged by how much wealth we have. The purpose of life is not to accumulate. Nor is it to survive until we die and go to Heaven. “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). It is here, though it is (quite obviously) not fulfilled.
Christians have the Kingdom to offer those in despair. Are we showing it to them?
Think we should all write a check? The median household wealth (the number at which half the population has more and half has less) is $78,100. That’s right: most Americans don’t have anywhere near as much as their share of the debt.
Over that same period in which the national debt more than tripled, median household wealth went down 22%.
Here are two questions to think about:
Where is all that money going? Not into the pockets of most Americans!