First Person

Chasing Dreams Across a Gulf

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There’s a new book out there that makes sobering reading—and it may help bring a little perspective to the unease financially comfortable Americans are feeling as they watch the value of their homes plummet and their savings evaporate.

Called “The Measure of America,” it’s a clear-eyed, methodical examination of one of our treasured myths: That with pluck and persistence the American dream—a decent standard of living, a long and healthy life, a good education—can belong to all of us.

It just ain’t so.

Profound differences in opportunity and income have created a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. How we’ll bridge that growing divide will be the true measure of the kind of country we are.

Meanwhile, word is spreading. A Boston Globe editorial last week referred extensively to the report’s findings as it called on President-Elect Obama to improve American health care. A few weeks ago, Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, pulled the book (which was supported by Oxfam America) out of his briefcase at a conference in Washington, DC, and advised everyone to read it.

“And what it does is take the pulse of America on dimensions that count: child survival, life expectancy, hunger, literacy or illiteracy, school attendance, enrollments, and so on,” said Sachs. “It turns out that we lead in a lot of bad categories—and we lag in the most important good categories.”

Sachs cited the 30 high-income countries in the world that are grouped together in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. Among them the US leads—along with Mexico—in child poverty. We’re number two on that list.

“We lead in new AIDS cases per capita, by far, among all the rich countries. We know that’s the poor, vulnerable, and excluded in our society,” he continued. “You know we are 25th in infant mortality rates now. We’re at the level of Slovakia and Poland. We are 23rd in life expectancy, we are 21st in science literacy of our 15-year-olds, we’re 21st in math literacy. We rank 17th in household savings rates. Even the internet—we consider it ours, but we rank 10th in users per capita.”

The question Sachs then asked is one that is weighing on us all right now: “What’s happened to this country?”

We might each have our own opinion about that, but the great thing about this country is that collectively we can find solutions to the problems that plague each one of us. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+