An America in distress needs urgent reforms

The Elderly Economic Security Standard Index informs that in 2016 a majority of them lacked the “financial resources required to meet basic needs.” Nearly 28 per cent of US households are single person households.

An America in distress needs urgent reforms

(Representative Image: iStock)

The USA has one of the most extensive databases on important social trends. These increasingly point to urgent need for social reform. According to a Federal Reserve Report of 2018 on the economic well-being of US households, about 40 per cent of adults in the country would not be able to meet a $400 emergency with cash, saving or even a credit card charge that they could quickly pay off.

About 27 per cent of those surveyed would need to borrow money or sell something to find the $400 needed, while 12 per cent would not be able to arrange this at all.

This indicates a strong need for improving the well-being of the bottom 40 per cent. Data on access to basic utilities indicates many may be cut off due to non-payment of bills. A headline in the Guardian (23 June 2020) said: “Revealed – Millions of Americans can’t afford water as bills rise 80%”. A Washington Post report dated 1 October 2020 was headlined: “Millions of Americans risk losing power and water as massive unpaid utility bills pile up; 17.9 million may be at risk of shutoffs.”


The Elderly Economic Security Standard Index informs that in 2016 a majority of them lacked the “financial resources required to meet basic needs.” Nearly 28 per cent of US households are single person households.

Nearly 50 per cent of all US marriages end in divorce or separation; nearly 41 per cent of first marriages, 60 per cent of second marriages and 73 per cent of third marriages. In households with children, half the divorces lead to push towards poverty.

Children suffer adverse short-term and long-term impacts of divorce and separation, including serious ones. According to the National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control nearly 4.8 million intimate partnerrelated assaults take place in a year. One in five women experience rape in their lifetime, one in three women experience physical violence and one in two experience psychological violence.

A report on child abuse is made every 10 seconds. Authorities trace 656,000 victims of child maltreatment in a year, but the problem is bigger. More than 4 million referrals are made to child protection agencies in a year.

The incarceration rate is the highest in the USA. About 10 million people face incarceration in a year. The USA has 5 per cent of the world’s population but a quarter of its prisoners. About half the prisoners suffer from mental health problems. Over 1.2 million violent crimes are officially estimated to take place in a year, a high number, but many such crimes do not reach police records and unofficial estimates of violent incidents are much higher.

According to the database of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, more than half the population will be diagnosed with a mental health illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Nearly 20 per cent people are affected by mental health problems in any given year. One in five children, either currently or at some point during their life, has had a serious debilitating mental illness.

One in 25 Americans live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to make the situation clearer, mental health problems can be classified into ‘any mental illness’ (AMI) and ‘serious mental illness’ (SMI). In 2021, there were an estimated 57.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the USA with AMI – 22.8 per cent of all adults.

However this rose to 27.2 per cent in the case of women and to 33.7 per cent in the case of young people in the 18-25 age group. In 2021, 14.1 million of those older than 18 were affected by SMI, defined in terms of serious functional impairment limiting major life activities..

Diagnostic Interview data from National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement has revealed that an estimated 49.5 per cent of adolescents had mental health disorders. Among these affected, 22.2 per cent had serious impairment and/or distress.

The latest official statistics of ‘Youth Risk Behavior Survey’ (YRBS), USA, 2011-2021 released recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), USA, have revealed truly alarming levels of distress among US youth. The YRBS statistics tell us that in 2021, 42 per cent of US high school students “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”. When this figure was reported at 28 per cent in 2011, it was considered to be quite high and hence brought forth calls for remedial actions.

Despite these, the number increased persistently and steadily during the decade. In the case of female students, this percentage is even higher – in 2021 as many as 57 per cent of female high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

As many as 22 per cent high school students in the USA “seriously considered attempting suicide” in 2021, another increasing trend. In the case of female students this number was as high as 30 per cent. As many as 18 per cent of high school students had actually “made a suicide plan” in 2021, while 10 per cent actually attempted suicide.

Another aspect of distress suffered by female students related to sexual violence, with 18 per cent having faced it. This data is indicative of very high levels of distress.

Some of the pressing economic needs will be taken care of if inequalities are reduced. The top one per cent have as much as 35 per cent of the wealth, while the bottom half have only 1.5 per cent of wealth. Overdue corrections in both government and private spending can release over $1000 billion a year for ending deprivation.

Many eminent persons have suggested that the excessive military expenditure of over $800 billion annually can be reduced by a half. Private spending on various forms of legal and illegal gambling is around $600 billion in a year – this too can be halved.

The current spending on intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, legal and illegal intoxicating drugs etc.) adds up to around $600 billion and can be reduced by about a half. Regarding social problems more thoughtful reforms based on identification of real causes and linkages of various issues should be taken.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril, Man over Machine, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071.)