New York: People in India have traditionally viewed the United States of America as a synonym for prosperity. The allure of the American Dream had made many educated and aspiring Indians believe that it was a land of ever-expanding opportunities for wealth creation. The dream survived for several decades. It cannot any longer.
America is getting poorer. And its official. The US Census Bureau reported on Tuesday that joblessness and economic stagnation have pushed as many as 46.2 millionalmost one in six Americansbelow poverty line. Last year alone,the number of those living in poverty swelled by 2.6 million,the largest increase seen since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. The worst affected are children. Nearly one in four of those under 18 years are now living in poverty. Over 20 million American children depend on school meal programmes to escape hunger.
The middle class is shrinking in size,and so is its income. Since 2000,10 per cent of middle class jobs have disappeared. During the same period,the number of low-paid jobs has increased. Many reputed auto companies in Detroit,once the pride of the nation,now employ contract workers who earn half the wages of permanent employees. Official unemployment has soared to 9.1per cent; many people believe its much higher. The US economy added zero jobs in August.
Of course,the poor in America do not suffer the same kind of deprivation as the poor in India. US poverty line means an income of $11,139 for one person and $22,314 for a family of four. Convert that into rupees,and one is tempted to think that people with so much income cannot really be considered poor. Many poor families in America have air-conditioning,microwaves,cable or satellite TV,etc. However,measured on the basis of their access to three critical requirements of lifefood,education and healthcaretheir pain becomes palpable. One in six Americans does not have enough food to eat,and lives on food stamps. Fifty million Americans do not have any health insurance. For such people,a single incidence of major illness could easily wreck their finances. Privately run schools,colleges and universities in America are the envy of the world. However,they are so expensive that poor students cannot even dream of going to these institutions. Scholarships are getting harder to get. Meanwhile,as in India,the quality of education in government-funded schools is so poor that students from low-income families cannot compete with their rich counterparts in the market for high-paying jobs.
Last year,Americans were startled by the title of a bookThird World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dreamauthored by Arianna Huffington,founder of the influential webzine huffingtonpost.com. The title is indeed alarmist. Nevertheless,more and more worried Americans are debating on how to stem their nations decline.
As an outsider,here are my reflections. To begin with,India should learn from Americas positive attributes; but we must be careful not to repeat its follies. Secondly,history urges all to know the true meaning of the decline and rise of nations. The notion that a nation becomes,and remains,great only if it is on an unending path of material prosperity and military prowess is both dangerous and self-defeating. No nation should delude itself into thinking that it is destined to remain the greatest power on earth forever. Americas core values are great and strong. Guided by these values,America needs to put an end to its divisive politics and find a new place for itself in the changing world,as a member of the international community that treats other members as equals. This entails,above all,giving up its self-appointed role as the global cop. America has counter-productively squandered between 2-3 trillion dollars on the unjustifiable and unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It must drastically roll back its military spending and plans. Militarism of big powers is a threat to both world peace and sustainable development of the world community.
Thirdly,America will do itself and the world a lot of good by redefining the path and purpose of economic growth. Specifically,it should move away from its consumerism-driven,debt-enhancing,utterly unsustainable and spiritually impoverishing growth model to one that is savings-driven and need-based. In making this transition,it will certainly undergo much pain. But it will be the pain of a sick patient who undergoes a necessary surgery and regains his health.
In addition,America must rediscover the art,science and joy of manufacturing and growing much of what it needs. This was explained to me succinctly by a farmer I met at an apple-picking farm near Nashua in New Hampshire. John,40-something and a university graduate,lost his job in an information technology company. Like millions of ordinary Americans,he now does multiple jobspart-time on the farm,part-time as a sports trainer in a local school,and some odd IT assignments from home. How do you think America can overcome its current economic crisis? I asked him. After a contemplative pause,he replied,We should go back to Mother Nature and learn from her rhythms. We should hug the trees. We should do more of home-grown stuff. We Americans have gotten into this mess because we stopped making things ourselves and,instead,started buying,with borrowed money,everything made elsewhere.
John may sound like a swadeshi American,but he provides much food for thought to a beleaguered President Obama.