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McElwee writes: "Although the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags behind other developed nations in many important indicators of human development - key factors like how we educate our children, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and more."

The U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of our population than countries like Russia, China and Iran. (photo: Michael Criswell/Getty Images)
The U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of our population than countries like Russia, China and Iran. (photo: Michael Criswell/Getty Images)

Six Ways America Is Like a Third-World Country

By Sean McElwee, Rolling Stone

08 March 14


Our society lags behind the rest of the developed world in education, health care, violence and more

lthough the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags behind other developed nations in many important indicators of human development - key factors like how we educate our children, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and more. In some instances, the U.S.'s performance is downright abysmal, far below foreign countries that are snidely looked-down-upon as "third world." Here are six of the most egregious examples that show how far we still have to go:

1. Criminal Justice

We all know the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed, but few are likely aware of just how bad it is compared to the rest of the world. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That's significantly worse than Russia (484 prisoners per 100,000 citizens), China (121) and Iran (284). The only country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than we do is North Korea. The U.S. is also the only developed country that executes prisoners - and our death penalty has a serious race problem: 42 percent of those on death row are black, compared to less than 15 percent of the overall population.

Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelmingly African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed. As of 2011, an estimated 217,000 American prisoners were raped each year ­- that's 600 new victims every day, a truly horrifying number. In 2010, the Department of Justice released a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1 percent of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and 12 months had a victimization rate of 14.2 percent.

2. Gun Violence

The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders, and the difference isn't a slight gap - more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.

3. Healthcare

A study last year found that in many American counties, especially in the deep South, life expectancy is lower than in Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee health care to its citizens; even after the Affordable Care Act, millions of poor Americans will remain uninsured because governors, mainly Republicans, have refused to expand Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income Americans. Although the federal government will pay for the expansion, many governors cited cost, even though the expansion would actually save money. America is unique among developed countries in that tens of thousands of poor Americans die because they lack health insurance, even while we spend more than twice as much of our GDP on healthcare than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a collection of rich world countries. The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations, as well as the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the developed world, largely because of the politically-motivated unavailability of contraception in many areas.

4. Education

The U.S. is among only three nations in the world that does not guarantee paid maternal leave (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). This means many poor American mothers must choose between raising their children and keeping their jobs. The U.S. education system is plagued with structural racial biases, like the fact that schools are funded at the local, rather than national level. That means that schools attended by poor black people get far less funding than the schools attended by wealthier students. The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding. It's no wonder America has one of the highest achievement gaps between high income and low income students, as measured by the OECD. Schools today are actually more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s. Our higher education system is unique among developed nations in that is funded almost entirely privately, by debt. Students in the average OECD country can expect about 70 percent of their college tuition to be publicly funded; in the United States, only about 40 percent of the cost of education is publicly-funded. That's one reason the U.S. has the highest tuition costs of any OECD country.

5. Inequality

By almost every measure, the U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country. This inequality has deep and profound effects on American society. For instance, although the U.S. justifies its rampant inequality on the premise of upward mobility, many parts of the United States have abysmal levels of social mobility, where children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Inequality harms our democracy, because the wealthy exert an outsized political influence. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, spent more to influence the 2012 election than the residents of 12 states combined. Inequality also tears at the social fabric, with a large body of research showing that inequality correlates with low levels of social trust. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson show that a wide variety of social indicators, including health and well-being are intimately tied to inequality.

6. Infrastructure

The United States infrastructure is slowly crumbling apart and is in desperate need for repair. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In New York City, the development of Second Avenue subway line was first delayed by the outbreak of World War II; it's still not finished. In South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Some 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transit. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old and in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century. One in nine U.S. bridges (or 66,405 bridges) are considered "structurally deficient," according to the National Bridge Inventory. All of this means that the U.S. has fallen rapidly in international rankings of infrastructure.

America is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots. The fact that nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record means that politicians can lock up more and more citizens without fear of losing their seat. Our ideas of meritocracy and upward mobility blind us to the realities of class and inequality. Our healthcare system provides good care to some, but it comes at a cost - millions of people without health insurance. If we don't critically examine these flaws, how can we ever hope to progress as a society? your social media marketing partner


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+43 # ReconFire 2014-03-08 22:37
Welcome to Republacia. the country of no. Ain't it great!
+4 # ritawalpoleague 2014-03-11 09:48
No way, Jose (ReconFire)is this country great, except at its 1% evil villainaires greed and power over all addiction.

And, Sean McElwee, please allow me to take off my legal hat, put on my old journalism/edit or hat, and offer a correction on your sub head. America most certainly does not lag behind the rest of the world in violence. I stated this as best I could, following the Aurora tragedy and not long before the gruesome Newtown tragedy. Pull up: KRDO, then search for Gun Laws, Mental Health. Yes, I certainly do still believe that... WE ARE FAILING.

Think a correction to your sub head could and should be...

"Our country lags behind the rest of the rest of the developed world in education, health care, violence control and more"
+32 # barbaratodish 2014-03-09 03:03
The picture (above) of a jail cell (where you serve a state sentence of 1 year or under) or a prison cell (where you serve a state sentence over 1 year) is PROBABLY in a state other than in Texas, because in Texas (well at least in Huntsville, TX in 1986) the jails had no toilets, just a drain in the center of the cell! I know because I was in the cell (for a few hours) on trumped up charges of trespassing and intoxication. The charges were thrown out and there is probably no record of me ever having been in there! I was told to never return to the state of Texas! I was teaching sociology/crimi nology to prisoners/inmat es (what's PC?) who were, it turns out, able to teach me! It was at a Lee College (Bayville, TX.) program,in the Walls Unit of Huntsville Prison. I let some people doing construction in the area know that in addition to teaching at the prison that I was doing some investigating about corruption and I was railroaded out of my academic appointment for being a potential whistleblower! Federal jails can be in Post Offices! I was in one of them too!(also only for a few hours in 1986 or 1987) having to do with allegedly using a bank instrument fraudulently. It was my own corporate credit card for FIP, Inc(now wwww.flyinginpl the DOJ alleged was a "shell corporation"! Though I was convicted, it was reversed on appeal and any record was expunged. I want to write a film, though about these and other life experiences.
+5 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-03-09 21:23
"Like" means it is.
+7 # SenorN 2014-03-10 03:57
Wonderful article!

Thank You, Sean!
+11 # thunderable 2014-03-10 20:08
A sad, but important enumeration of our most glaring defects.

The worst thing about the article is that probably 99% of Americans don't know or don't care enough to do anything about the present state.

I also just found out (DemocracyNow!) that U.S. taxpayers have spent over $56 billion since 2001 DIRECTLY paying for human trafficking to staff our military bases abroad. America has NO MORAL AUTHORITY any longer.
+13 # Anarchist 23 2014-03-10 23:29
Don't forget the 1 in 6 Americans who are 'food insecure' our new Orwellian term for hungry!
+1 # Hey There 2014-03-11 23:41
I've read the spirit level and Screwed by Thom Hartmann. Wouldn't it be a refreshing
change to have laws based on these and other books like them than on laws that favor the rich.
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