Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
-excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, a sonnet about immigration into the United States symbolising the Statue of Liberty
The United States of America was once land of the free, where equal opportunity welcomed the most impoverished of people, where people could carve out their legacy through good will and hard work. However, this image of the American Dream has been slowly eroding since the 1960s, marked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in which after his death, the US took on a “war as business model”, which lead us to the current era in which the US has been involved in multiple foreign interventions that have left a great wealth disparity amongst the local citizenry.
“Make me their President, and I’ll give them their war.”
- President Lyndon B. Johnson after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy who refused to authorise US involvement in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was the beginning of the cycle in which the “war as business model” would make the top 1% continually richer at the expense of the many and left hundreds of thousands of US soldiers wounded and dead whilst the general US population grew poorer.
Recently, I saw an hour long documentary on the decaying nature of cities such as in Seattle, which has changed dramatically over the years, and the current state in which it has become a haven for homelessness and crime.
It is a dire scene in which the city is filled with homelessness, drug trafficking, and lack of culpability for criminals, the failure of the criminal justice system with more and more police officers becoming disillusioned over time.
The problem of course, is that this isn’t particularly unique to Seattle, in fact, this city model also represents what has been going on San Francisco and Los Angeles and what is currently happening to Portland, Phoenix, New Mexico, New Orleans, Washington DC, etc and many other American cities in which there has been a great wealth disparity, breakdown of the criminal justice system, and where drug trafficking, human trafficking and homelessness have taken the nation hostage.
There are several reasons for how cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, which ironically is home to the most number of American billionaires, have become centres of ruin:
- When large multi-national corporations enter a city, the price of real estate surges, leaving the local population nowhere to live. This includes military veterans on disability, people living on moderate pensions, families with more than 4 children living on a single parent income, etc.
- Drug lords also enter the city, creating gangs of criminals, with young people usually being recruited. Human/ sex trafficking also increases. The visible homeless without shelters become targets for drug addiction. Local homes become targets for robbery.
- Lack of social programmes for the local population that focus on retraining programmes, health and nutrition, and adequate housing allows drug lords to take control of an entire city exacerbating criminal activity in local populations.
- A disparity in pay for service industry workers whilst increase in pay for those in the technology sectors create and exacerbate socioeconomic tension that is interpreted as “racial division”.
Instead of throwing money at the problem and hoping these problems go away on their own as the US govt has been doing, we need to build more forward thinking solutions on how we can solve these growing economic and social issues.
Forward Thinking Solutions
1) Hiring Locally = Training Programmes For Local Populations By The Private Sector.
Multi-national corporations could recruit and create hiring practices that take from the pool of existing local populations without discrimination towards education, age, gender and experience. Google has been particularly under fire for hiring university graduates with similar degrees in which they have developed a tech “monoculture” of sorts on their campuses. There is nothing more antithetical to innovative development than a group of similar people, similar ages, similar background with similar education and experiences. Even their attempts to facilitate diversity has been criticised which has lead to less group harmony and more towards collective resentment towards those employees who are viewed as receiving “special treatment”.
I think these issues could be resolved if Google and other companies relied less on predetermined markers of experience and problem solving which uses trivia data as calculation tools, and instead relied more on individual experience and group harmony. In this way, individuals can be appreciated for bringing in differences to a particular group, rather than relying on external metrics that favour ivy league graduates with engineering or business degrees. Training programmes could be tailored towards specific project goals, incorporating at-risk youth, single mothers, and military veterans. This would lift a significant portion of the surrounding local neighbourhoods out of poverty in addition to potentially developing and representing products that would appeal more to local populations. This method would be much more immediately effective and have long-lasting actions on the local population than what tech companies are now suggesting by grouping all the poor people in the same neighbourhood in low-cost housing.
If we examine the history of technology, the most creative and innovative ideas rarely come from top Fortune 500 companies, whose consultants did not even foresee the oncoming popularity of touch phones, online banking or the internet as worthy investments, but surprisingly from everyday people who worked in the service industry sectors and were the early adopters.
I recall a company founder who told me that when he worked in the financial sector in the early 1990s that he had paid a group from a Fortune 500 consultancy, who all had engineering, financial and MBA backgrounds from top universities to come up with ideas and solutions for investment and they had all gone on a retreat for the week in some resort town for collective groupthink, but no one came up with any worthwhile ideas at all. However, he happened to have a short conversation with the man who had been working in the mail sorting area of their company for several decades, and asked him what he thought was a worthwhile investment and the man immediately told him “online banking”. “It’s going to be big”, he said, “the internet”. Although this story is highly anecdotal in nature, I think we often underestimate the foresight and insightfulness of local populations. Private sector companies could actively change their hiring practices to move away from the tech monoculture which prevails today that is contrary to innovation, exacerbates wealth disparity and creates a pervasive atmosphere of prejudice within the population.
2) Commit A Nonviolent Crime = Mandatory Military Service.
The problem with being tough on crime on drug lords and criminals is that it requires each state to have enough funds to spend on prisoners and the justice system. Criminals require space to be locked up in prisons, lawyers and judges take a lot of funding for hearings and to trial cases and there aren’t enough prisons to house all the people who are repeat offenders of crimes. In California, recently, 200K+ prisoners were released from prison in the last few years simply due to a lack of funding and space. This is a pattern that is affecting all the major cities.
In addition, the problem of drug addiction is a key factor on why the homeless population in many of these urban centres remain homeless and unable to help themselves. This might at first, appear to be a radical solution, but criminals might avoid the pitfalls of an re-entry into crime if it becomes mandatory to enter military service or military training programmes. The military could become a training centre to rehabilitate former criminals, attain interpersonal skills with a potential to build a career in the military, and in turn, the criminal population could be shifted to uphold laws and detect/ prevent crime within the population. Criminals often return to crime because of the existing paradox that no other companies or organisations are willing to hire people with criminal records, therefore a Second Chance programme towards mandatory military service could make a difference in the lives of former criminals who are actively looking to rehabilitate themselves.
In terms of the homeless, we must remember that these people are often suffering from malnutrition, do not have the resources of social services and medical care, and often fall into the pitfalls of drug addiction, whilst concomitantly not being enough space in homeless shelters to accommodate them. Also, a surprising number of the homeless also comprises of military veterans who were unable to transition into civilian life. I think this is a clear case where the homeless needs to be incarcerated, given medical care, and to become free of drug addiction before they are able to return to society. In the short documentary I mentioned above, Seattle is Dying, the key solution was given to replicate the prison system of Boston, in which a group of female administrators were able to rehabilitate homeless drug addicts and criminals by forced incarceration, and who were given psychological counseling and therapy, in addition to medical treatment. Although at the end of the documentary, it appears to promote pharmaceutical drugs such as the controversial and addictive methadone to be utilised to wean them off other street drugs as heroin and methamphetamines, I think it would be more effective to incorporate nutrition, and use of other supplementation and naturopathic methods, such as melatonin and vitamin c, which were studied by researchers to prevent withdrawal symptoms via their dopaminergic and glutamatergic action on opioid receptors.
The prison system could serve as a rehabilitation and educational centre to teach the homeless new skills whilst they are given adequate medical and psychological care, instead of what major cities are doing now, which is to let them expand all across town, wreaking havoc on local businesses, leaving them unsupervised in camps to patronize drug lords.
3) Neutralising Crime through Art and Music: Enhancing Group Community within Diverse Populations.
In every oppressed society, what has united people has always been art and music. Although western societies may view art as elitist activities in which institutional artists with expensive pedigrees often create work that commands hundreds of thousands of dollars at posh art galleries and art markets, the simple fact is that art and music have functioned to serve as a basis for uniting people in every oppressed society.
“Institutional art” has been criticised to serve as nothing more than forgettable, decorative, investment pieces by artists who have learned to use convoluted language to account for nothing with actual substance. Whereas art by oppressed populations depicting paradoxes in society and self-expression may have greater value over time by its impact on local populations. Therapeutic uses of art and music have been the ideal basis for community unity and harmony.
One of the most important factors in a harmonious community is the access to social services and programmes which are a necessary part of every functioning society. Local populations need access to resources and services in order to create a harmonious state, which in turn helps local businesses thrive and fends off the criminal element in neighbourhoods. As more services are cut and funding decreased, societies in the developed world have faced a greater wealth disparity, which leads to increased crime rates.
As opposed to non-profits and charities attempting to teach at-risk group programming skills in a one-size fits all educational boot camp style, it would have much more long-lasting impact and value to local communities instead to achieve group harmony though art and music. If we take the example of Austin, Texas, which has a large, diverse community, the local government decided to give free health care and other resources to local musicians, which became an extraordinary, long-standing successful programme. Despite having a diverse population, Austin has one of the lowest crime rates in Texas and their property crime rate is currently at a 20 year low.
In this way, the govt, NGOs and the non-profit sector can enhance community harmony by actively supporting artists and musicians in local neighbourhoods through social services and programmes that ensure that they are active in the community. In a similar methodology, many parts of poor, crime ridden neighbourhoods in the UK were enhanced by community art projects in which there was a significant decrease in crime and vandalism. When people are proud of their local citizenry, and street art, and other art and plaques are strewn throughout cities and towns, people tend to be united together as opposed to resorting to join criminal gangs in order to survive. This helps at-risk youth more than trying to fit them all into a boot camp that attempts to teach them how to code.
4) Eradication of the War Profiteering Model = Higher Pay for Service Industry Jobs
Service industry jobs are usually flexible jobs that cater to a large population of students and other individuals who need supplemental income. However, if we compare the salary of a waiter at a
TGI Friday’s Restaurant in the United States $5/hr vs. Australia $20/hr vs. the UK $10/hr (£7/hr) (source: Glassdoor) we can clearly see that there is a large discrepancy in pay. This large income disparity could have a direct causal relationship to “racial tension” in communities. If we take the example of Australia, which is a nation that has a similar diverse population to that of the US and the UK, we can clearly see that the divisive racial tensions there are not nearly as prominent as in the US and the UK, where service industry positions are often low paid positions that do not support a living wage. When service industry positions do not pay a living wage, what occurs is that the local populations often resort to joining criminal gangs, and hence racial divisions become more accentuated over time, when in reality, it is income disparity that is the direct cause of these divisions.
“The Sharing Economy” which was promoted by US startups to enhance flexibility in jobs, by the hiring of zero hour contractors for food delivery or riding sharing, has largely been criticised and discredited as achieving the exact opposite: in that the sharing economy was really a method of exploitation of cheap labour and people in precarious living situations in which startups took advantage of a large pool of people willing to work for low pay, whilst having none of the advantages of working full-time for a company with benefits and insurance.
If we again look at the example of Seattle and San Francisco, in which multi-national tech corporations often attempt to lure “top candidates” with a mid-6 figure salary, wining and dining out-of-state candidates to come live in those cities, these actions create and accentuate a large wealth disparity because these corporations do not support the local population. Instead, if we examine the solution proposed in #1, if multi-national corporations instead hired from local populations and created and tailored training programmes endemic to their local communities, this single action alone would eradicate the income disparity in the service industries.
The trickle-down economic policies of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s set a pattern in which local populations would ultimately suffer, whilst the 1% war investment profiteers would continue to get richer. Private sector corporations, such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla and many others with a responsible motto to “do no evil” could begin to integrate different hiring strategies in order to incorporate and support local populations, instead of spending all their resources attempting to attract the “best talent” from out-of-state.
Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, has once said that he often asks founders of a startup, "how they would be able to impact 1 billion people?". The “monoculture” at tech companies might’ve created amusing logos or products on their search engine, or in our favourite services, but if we examine their long list of numerous product failures, such as Google Hangouts, Google Orkut, Google Wave, Google Answers, Google Notebook, Google Glass, Google + et al, it is apparent that when a “monoculture” creates products, it rarely makes a dent on 1 billion people. Instead of forcing diversity on their campuses through quotas, Google and other private sector corporations can integrate local populations and the local community by changing their active hiring practices, and this could pave the path to indeed making an impact not only in addressing poverty and drug addiction, but on income disparity, in homelessness, in crime and enhancing the overall good of the population which would have an immediate impact on 327 million people living in the United States.
In addition, policies in the US govt need to actively address and eradicate the war profiteering model in order to stop the increasing momentum of wealth disparity in the United States. Although a strong and capable military may be intrinsic to a population in the era of a hypervigilant society, the “war as business model” has proven that it could ultimately destroy the fabric of American society in which, in the near future, the US could collapse as did the Roman Empire and the former USSR in which the we are following an eerily similar path.
In summary, applying band-aid methods to solve the social, economic and income disparities in the United States has lead to the divisive politics of racial tensions. It is time that both the private sector and the govt stop blaming problems on racial division and instead address the actual causes of wealth inequality in the United States: the war profiteering model, exclusion of local populations by multi-national corporations advancing a tech monoculture, and the dominating presence of drug lords and criminal gangs in every city.
By Sierra Choi