BBC Panorama – Poor America

From the description:

“With one and a half million American children now homeless, reporter Hilary Andersson meets the school pupils who go hungry in the richest country on Earth. From those living in the storm drains under Las Vegas to the tent cities now springing up around the United States, Panorama finds out how the poor are surviving in America and asks whatever happened to Barack Obama’s vision for the country”.

I mentioned this video on the 2025 collapse thread – It aired on BBC last night and I just found on Youtube so that I could share it here.  I know that this website is about “justice for US persons abroad”, but I think that we could maybe spare a thought for those still in the US.

I found this to be really shocking and evidence of what I saw the last time that I visited the US in 2010.  Its all here: failing schools, out-priced medical care, homelessness, rigid social mobility, the broken political system and so on.

I can’t remember the last time that I saw a homeless person in the street in Belgium and nobody has to fear visiting a doctor here.  Very disturbing to watch.

Post your thoughts.

23 thoughts on “BBC Panorama – Poor America

  1. America has always been good at over looking the downside to its culture. From its history of slavery, the genocide of the Natives, to the homeless and the tens of millions without medical care. So much for the unspeakable “advantages” of U.S. citizenship.

  2. We have to count our blessings here in Canada. I just can’t understand how a country like the United States can allow this to happen and not be ashamed of it. Obama seems out of touch with reality.

    Although money is tight, the Canadian government has navigated us through this financial crisis extremely well. They gave us forward guidance when we needed it so we could make big decisions like buying a house at the height of the crisis and told us to put on the breaks when we were spending too much.

  3. Videos like this one remind me to be thankful I live in a country where I can go to the hospital or see a doctor without worrying whether I will be in debt for the rest of my life.

  4. In all fairness there are homeless people here in France. I was in Paris last night for an interview and went through this part of town

    It’s not clear to me why these people are living on the streets. There are programs public and private to help them. I think alcohol abuse is a major factor but I’m sure there is so much more that I don’t understand.

    Last night I read Charles Murray’s new book. Murray is not one of my favorite authors but he had some very interesting data and explanation for why the US really has serious class divisions. Gave me a lot of food for thought and I felt strangely ashamed after I read it. Murray is right – I grew up in a world that was completely divorced from the underclass in the US. Zero contact in my neighborhood, in school (private for high school) and at university. All that human capital that I got from my well-educated and cosmopolitan parents was what made it possible for me to become part of a globalized world. These people don’t stand a chance and a lot of them have given up. What is truly odd is how many of them are really resentful of the government but take government assistance. Welfare is out but disability is in. From what I read in the Times these people are very bitter that they MUST take assistance to survive. I can understand that.

    Where Murray lost me in his analysis is when he started dumping on Europe. It’s not a better system, he said, it’s a disaster in the making and it won’t last. He gives no empirical evidence for this, he simply asserts it. From where I sit, the French weathered the crisis in far better shape then the Americans and it was not just government programs that made that possible but other, less tangible things like a sense of solidarity, a coherent and still very strong culture, frugal and prudent habits. He talks as though Europe has no civic culture compared to the US. I’d love for him to meet my mother-in-law who is active with many of her friends in her neighborhood and neighborhood church. Watch the reaction of people on the streets to a homeless person. People do stop, give a few centimes or a baquette to these people and actually engage them in conversation. No one likes to see someone begging but I don’t have the sense that the poor are completely invisible (or blamed for their plight) and I have never seen the cops running them off even in places like the fancy neighborhood around Etoile. So I have a very hard time squaring Murray’s analysis of Europe with what I live every day. I think he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know but I do suspect that he sees the European model as a threat.

  5. My maternal grandparents were peasants from Korea; my paternal grandfather was born a poor farm boy at an unproductive homestead near Corvalis, Oregon.

    My wife’s family story is similar; my father-in-law was a mechanic at a prop shop and became eventually an owner.

    How does our narrative fit into the idea that there is class system in North America?

  6. Good question, petros. My maternal grandfather was working class (second grade education) but he was a veteran and worked all his life after the war for the Army Core of Engineers. Three ideas:

    1. Mobility was easier for previous generations. You really could get a decent job with almost zero educational credentials. Expanding economy, lots of government jobs, and so on.
    2. Immigrants do not have much invested in crying over the “good old days.” They see that there is a system and they do what is necessary to fit into it and succeed (exactly what I did here in France). Immigrant parents will practically kill themselves at low-paying jobs so that their kids get the best, get into good schools and become part of the upper classes. Amy Chua was ripped to shreds for her Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother but she’s right and what she did, does work.
    3. A corollary to 2. Immigrants may be very successful because they are NOT integrated into mainstream American culture. To the extent that immigrants and their children start acting like Americans, their grip on or entry into the the upper classes becomes more tenuous. And it’s entirely possible that they will slide backwards over time. When their grand-children, for example, decide to forgo math and science for less lucrative degrees because they place more value on being “fulfilled’ then they do on being successful.

    Is that a harsh assessment? Perhaps but I’m sitting here in my host country as an immigrant where similar rules apply. You have to work twice as hard to get anywhere and you have to fight like hell so your children can do just as well or better. That’s the “magic” formula. Just my .02.

  7. @ Victoria I see a class system as leading to generational privilege or poverty. While my parents were physicians, they had to work themselves through med school. My father was the hardest working person I’d ever met, and when I spent time with his parents, I knew where he obtained his work ethic.

    My father was not an “immigrant”. My mother’s family certainly counted as immigrants. My mother was a little bit like Amy Chua, though apparently not so extreme. My sisters did not become concert pianists. The tiger-mom generation in my family was perhaps the grandparents, who saw two children finish med school, and another a PhD. The oldest daughter helped my mum through med school.

    My Korea great-grandfather who came to Hawaii was a scholar–the closest thing to high-class in my family. He never worked with his hands, but offered his services as a literate person to the other illiterate workers. Yet his son, my grandfather, had to work hard.

  8. There is definitely a class system in the US. Along with the UK and Italy, the US is amongst the most socially static societies in the industrialised world. Those who are born into the working class tend to remain there, whilst those born into the upper classes tend to build upon that inherited social and financial capital and pass it on to the next generation, increasing the divide with each successive generation.

    I personally believe that the main way to increase social mobility is through having an excellent state education system. In the US and UK, if you want your child to succeed and get into the best university, you have to send them to a private school. Almost no exceptions. Where I live, in Belgium, and especially in the Nordic countries, the education systems are ranked amongst the best in the world, so each student has a greater chance of accessing and receiving a quality education than their US or UK counterparts do.

    I don’t believe that its all down to how rich your parents are – Education is the primary way to escape poverty. I bet that the main reason why immigrants in the US were so successful 50 years ago was that the US edcuational system was still quite good and has since become, I would argue, one of the worst in the industrialised world.

  9. For my 2cents, I have an MBA from an American school, but I think that education just teaches people to be like everyone else. Most of the richest people are college drop outs. I think that successful people don’t think like everybody else.

    Too many people have degrees in areas that are already saturated. I will tell my son to *only* study at a university if he studies a program that that is very hard and everyone else is scared to study. Otherwise, do a technical course, or go into business.

    I can pay my bills every month because of my personality and character traits (attention to detail and always trying to mitigate risks), and nothing that I learned at a school.

  10. @Don – agree 100% with you. France is not at the top in Europe but compared to the US it’s very good even in the ZEPs. This is a subject that I tend to be a bit sensitive about because I have been accused of being an Amy Chua by my American friends and family. Why? Well, for one thing they find the French system to be “cruel”: the hours are too long, no after school activities, not “creative” and very harsh when it comes to under-performance. As for me as a parent I’ve been told to “do something about” the French system – as if as an immigrant I’m going to go in there and explain to the French how their system needs to be more like the US? 🙂 And then I’ve been criticized for doing certain things like being absolutely adamant about the Frenchlings learning English, cutting off all electronic devices (access to internet, email, social media) when the grades slipped, making my daughter go for tutoring in math during vacation when I saw she was having trouble in class, making them work 1-2 hours during the summer with workbooks so they didn’t forget what they learned the previous year. For all of these things I’ve been accused of stifling their creativity and destroying their childhoods. Well, I’m not a perfect parent but I honestly fail to see how any of these things is going to scar them for life. And it said a lot to me about THEIR expectations for their kids which seem to be pretty low. “Math was hard so I let her drop it…” What in the hell is that all about? Major cultural divide here. 🙂

  11. In my experience, homelanders don’t like to think too much about the fact that migrants to the US come from varying class backgrounds and with varying levels of “cultural capital” of their own countries, which affects their outcomes in the US. (After all, that would require admitting that foreign cultural capital might actually be worth something). The stereotypical image is that you leave it all behind when you come to the US and you’re “baptised” into new American selfhood by working your way up from the bottom in manual jobs. Hence the ubiquitous stories of double-PhD cabbies and doctors-turned-deli-workers — which are never seen as problematic deskilling or waste of potential professionals, but rather inspiring stories of how hard work in America earns you a better living than a bunch useless book-learnin’ in a foreign country.

    Conversely, US expats go overseas with American cultural capital, which homelanders presume to be the world’s most valuable kind of cultural capital possible …

  12. @geeeez

    Agree with you about the market being saturated with poor quality university degrees, but my main point is to emphasise how important pre-university education is. Having a university degree is not always required to be successful here – In Italy and Germany, for example, students choose between a “classical” or “scientific” tract to study from years 9-12 (ie during US high school years).

    There’s a reason also that Polish plumbers are known to be the best (big steriotype in the EU…) – Its because they are! Even professions like plumbers, electricians and so on are all graduates of the scientific or technical schools and have to pass thorough assessments before they can call themselves a plumber or electrician. My understanding in the US was that basically anyone could become a plumber and electrician and that there was no idea how good they would be?

  13. @Victoria

    My parents were the same. I was not allowed any video games at all until I was over 14 and was given extra help in mathematics whilst in primary school as well. I also had extra materials to work through during the summer months as well. I didn’t even get a mobile phone until I was 15 – Try that with today’s kids 😛

    I think that the US and other western countries are really in danger of falling way behind Asian standards in the next 20 years if all of the parents become as passive as you say. The only way to ensure that your kids are successful is to proactively encourage them to want to be successful.


    I would argue that “cross-cultural” capital will be one of the defining attributes of many who are successful in the next century. I view this as those who have a deep understanding of more than one culture, speak at least two languages fluently, maybe have multiple passports (non-US of course…) and so on. These are all attributes that “homeland Americans” view with grave suspicion, yet these are also essential towards promoting American exports and relations around the globe. Having US ambassadors who speak only English (case in point – US Ambassador to Switzerland) and harassing US citizens abroad is a terrible way to promote a positive image and sell US products overseas. I do not see how US exceptionalism can survive in a competitive, globalised world.

  14. I’d be surprised if that was the case, but you never know. May be dependent on the particular state. (In Ontario fwiw plumbing and – particularly, given the safety issues – electrical work are regulated trades.)

  15. @Don – worries me too. My mother-in-law feels that French parents are getting lax too but I don’t have enough information to know if that’s true or not.

    What I do know is that, as you so rightfully point out, a good high school education confers enormous benefits. My elder Frenchling is at a school in Canada. Thanks to her French bac she was simply given 30 university credits and they waived all the normal freshman pre-reqs. This means that she will finish a four-year degree in 3 years. She picked a good field that she really enjoys and that does have real employment possibilities. And because she is taking upper level classes, the professors are really good and the material is interesting. She is having the time of her life. She is, as they say “fulfilled and having fun.” 🙂

  16. @victoria- Well Victoria I grew up in a Chicago inner city neighborhood and although my mother did send us to private school we certainly did not live in a middle class neighborhood. And although my mother did have good health insurance through her job with the city, we were well aware of what kind of health care was available for those who were without private health coverage.
    My mother’s private health coverage allowed us to go the better hospitals, which were definitely not in our area. We had better physicians, and we got to see specialist whenever it was required. There was no having to wait until a condition worsened before we got medical attention.
    I watched the Panorama video and I could only imagine how the life of my disabled son would be so much worse if he lived in the States. In Alberta he has to pay nothing for his medical treatments or his medications. If he lived in the States he would have to pay something out of pocket for his medical care. He gets to see the dentist once a year for absolutely no charge and if any work needs to be done there is also no charge. His glasses and eye exams are also free. Ambulance trips are at no cost. And he gets to see a heart specialist on a regular basis.
    How America can maintain that he receives some unseen benefit from being an America citizen is beyond me.
    America is a nation that believes everyone else in the world is wrong and that it alone is right. Any nation that can continue to bully a little country like Cuba is a nation that suffers from a severe personality disorder. What America is afraid of is the success of any system or country that doesn’t look up to America. Europe is not a basket case. Not every country in Europe is in economic trouble and the current European problems are the result of a confluence of an ill conceived monetary union. Coupled with the economic crisis that started in AMERICA.
    Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Austria, Luxemburg are some of the countries that are not in trouble. This is in contrast to the American economy which has been a total joke since the last Bush presidency.

  17. @victoria, @petros- class mobility in America has been on the decline for a long time now. There are many countries now, such as Canada, where class mobility is higher than that of America. This is true for many of the Socialist European countries also. Studies have shown that a system of socialized medicine actually increases class mobility. This is because when people are not tied to their job just so that they can maintain their health coveragle they can more easily leave it and start a new business.
    It should also be remembered that even during America’s height of class mobility that there were certain ethnic groups to whom this was systematically denied. It was these groups that served as the permanent under paid, underclass basis of American economic life. Where would the California agricultural system be without the under paid migrant workers?

  18. Victoria, your post about Charles Murray struck a chord with me. The Republican take on European welfare arrangements has puzzled me. I heard a British reporter ask Rick Santorum why he thought the National Health service was popular and Santorum told him Mrs. Thatcher once said the NHS stopped her restructuring the British economy. For him these seem to be parallel lines of development; you can have the NHS or a strong economy but not both. That’s a challenge for Europeans to prove you can have both but it’s also a challenge for the US to show how you can live without both. My personal preference is the European challenge.

  19. @Peter – That’s my take on it too. I went back recently and found a chapter in Friedman’s book The World is Flat where he calls for “compassionate flatism.” He argues (and I think he is dead right) that those of us who profit from globalization need to think about the many people all over the world who don’t have the skills or the human capital to compete in a flat world. Yet, these are the people who are most likely to suffer from its effects. They are being hammered even as the US and Europe dismantle the safety nets or impose austerity programs. To the extent that they don’t feel they can play in a flat world, they are very likely to want to punish those who can and do. Look at the polls measuring support for the EU – it is those who benefit most (multi-lingual educated professionals) who support further integration. Then look at the Far Right parties and what they say – they want to roll it back. Clearly they are tapping into this population that is watching their fellow Europeans doing very well while their local factories are being closed and their retirement benefits eroded.

    I honestly think that we ignore this at our peril. Even if we suffer from a compassion deficit (and I admit that I was) sheer self-preservation should make us stop and think about these people and how to mitigate some of the worst. We are only 6 million, they are tens if not hundreds of millions. To the extent that they are not listening to us (and have very strange ideas about who we are), I confess that I was pretty much oblivious to them. Am working on rectifying that. This verse from Matthew is one I like to meditate over these days:

  20. I’m interested in your point about reactions to the EU but those poll preferences may be a response to fears about loss of sovereignty, rather than austerity measures. Cycles of growth and contraction in European welfare spending have been going on since the 1950’s and while everybody moans the debate always seems to me to be about who decides and how much rather than basic principles. Here in the UK we are going through a period of benefit cuts but I think most of us expect the cuts to be restored in the sweet by and by when the Coalition has paid off the deficit and gets kicked out at the next election for their pains. There are lots of European countries I don’t know too much about but within the limits of my knowledge and experience I find Europeans generally support the welfare systems they/we have created whereas I always think that Americans work a lot harder at keeping a lid tightly on welfare spending. I think Europeans (Mrs. Thatcher aside) are better prepared to be a bit poorer – not too much, but a bit – as the price of solidarity.

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