10 Troubling Trends About Life in the United States

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The greatness or worth of a country cannot be adequately measured by statistics. The values of a nation, the attitudes of its people and its reputation around the world say so much more. And by those benchmarks, America still has a lot going for it. Statistics, however, are far more easily measured. Looking strictly at the numbers, there are many reasons to believe that America is still the greatest country in the world, as we detailed in a previous story. But there are just as many troubling statistics that don’t point to where America has been, but instead suggest a dark road ahead.


10. Workplaces Are Less Family Friendly Than in Other Countries

The United States does not mandate paid maternity leave for women, a common benefit in most developed countries. © Michael Kordahi

The U.S. stands virtually alone among developed countries in not mandating paid maternity leave to women. Most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-member countries offer 15 to 20 weeks; Bulgaria grants more than a year. A frequently heard argument in favor of the current arrangement is that individual employers are free to devise their own policies when it comes to paid maternity leave, but the fact is only 12 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. have access to it, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Most workers are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of time off from work but doesn’t include pay. Business-friendly government policies and weaker labor unions have helped to create today’s workplace environment in the U.S. Working mothers often have a harder climb up the corporate ladder as a result.


9. U.S. Spends Huge Portion of Budget on Defense

An F-22 Raptor, which costs around $340 million.

For fiscal year 2015, U.S. defense spending totaled $598.5 billion, 54 percent of all federal discretionary income. No other spending category comes close. Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. defense spending outstrips that of the next 10 nations combined; China comes in at a distant second ($145.8 billion). Coming out victorious and relatively unscathed after World War II, followed by the Cold War, had a lot to do with the permanent status of the U.S. military-industrial complex. One argument goes that by spending so much more on defense than the rest of the world, other nations are free to spend less, making for a more secure world. But the world is far from secure.


8. Student Debt is Soaring

Student debt continues to soar, with no end in sight. Credit: Federal Reserve Bank of NY

If you graduated from college in the 1970s or 1980s, consider yourself fortunate. Chances are you earned your degree without any student loan debt that followed you through your earning years. Those days are over in the U.S. According to CollegeBoard.org, tuition and fees at four-year, public institutions of higher learning in 1975-76 averaged less than $2,387 a year in today’s dollars, compared to more than $9,400 today; at private schools the average annual cost has ballooned past $32,000. Add room, board and advanced degrees, and it’s no wonder that the total outstanding student debt in the U.S. tops $1.2 trillion. Of course, inflation has hiked the price of everything in the U.S., but since the mid-1990s the cost of a college education has risen faster than even health care. The bottom line: an entire generation of college students struggling under a burden of heavy debt.


7. The Legal System Has Several Shortcomings

America has more laws and more lawyers than ever, but the judicial system has issues. © Karen Neoh

Francis Scott Key meant it when he wrote in 1814 that America is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” And then it took government workers only a few minutes to stuff the entire collection of U.S. laws into boxes and flee the encroaching British. We are a nation of countless thousands more laws today; nobody knows how many, although the number varies by state. Residents of New York, for instance, are the least free, if freedom is measured by the amount of laws they’re required to follow. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the U.S. has more lawyers than any other nation. But despite all the legal protections spelled out in our Constitution, we rank poorly when it comes to equal treatment before the law, according to the World Justice Project. And despite all those lawyers, civil redress is unaffordable for many.


6. America Has a Problem With Gun Violence

There were 372 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015. © GunViolenceArchive.org

Americans love their guns, and they’ve got a bunch, to the tune of just about one for every man, woman and child in America. With the exception of Yemen, no other country in the world has anywhere near that ratio. While most gun owners are responsible individuals, too often these guns are used for destruction. According to GunViolenceArchive.org, there were 372 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015, leaving 475 people dead and 1,870 wounded. That’s nothing to be proud of. In comparing gun deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. with those of similar countries, such as those of Western Europe, America is the clear leader.


5. U.S. Has Almost One-Quarter of the World’s Prisoners

Federal Bureau of Prisons data showing federal prison populations by offense, 1998-2010. Credit: The Urban Institute

The U.S. has about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but 22 percent of its prisoners. Notwithstanding the fact that this country is one of the world’s leaders in gun violence, as detailed above, the fact is violent crime is down overall since it last spiked in the 1990s. So why does the U.S. have the largest prison population in the world? Why has the number of inmates serving life sentences in the U.S. quadrupled since 1984? When crime has gotten tough, we’ve gotten tough on crime, not so much with prevention measures or more police officers as via stiffer prison sentences. Many of today’s lifers were put behind bars during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, particularly if armed robbery was involved. Many rapists and murderers serve shorter sentences. Meanwhile, drugs — now heroin and other opiates — continue to be a scourge in the U.S.


4. Americans Are the Fattest People in the Developed World

Almost three-quarters of Americans are overweight or obese. © Malingering/Flickr

According to the CDC, 71 percent of Americans today are either overweight or obese, making us the fattest people in the developed world. Our consumption of meat, grains and fats has steadily climbed over the past several decades. Technological gains now allow most of us to sit throughout our workday, and even when we’re not working we continue to sit. The CDC says 80 percent of us don’t get enough exercise. It’s all taken a toll on the nation’s overall health.


3. Health Care Costs Continue to Soar

Health care costs continue to rise in the U.S. © Christiana Care

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 was supposed to do two things: provide access to health care for those who had gone without, and bring costs down by expanding the health-care market. On the first goal, it has been mission accomplished. But since Obamacare went into effect, the costs of health care, and in particular prescription medications, have essentially risen unchecked, to 17.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. No other developed country in the world spends anywhere close to this much money keeping its citizens healthy (and as mentioned in No. 4 above, we’re not that healthy).


2. U.S. is World’s Richest Nation … But We Don’t Share

The blue line indicates GDP growth, while the red line shows a decline in median household income, indicating a rise in inequality. Credit: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Americans are awash in money, accounting for 41.6 percent of the world’s personal wealth, according to a 2015 report by Allianz, far more than those of any other country (the Chinese are a distant second at 10.5 percent). So why isn’t your bank account benefiting? Many Americans remain opposed to the wealth-redistribution measures favored by Europe’s social welfare states … at least until they’re reminded that Social Security is one such measure. And we easily forget that another reason is the tax code, modified ceaselessly over the past 50 years to the point where the U.S. now has the worst income inequality of 55 countries studied in that Allianz report. Unlike many older nations, America still allows for relatively easy class migration, but for everyone who’s upwardly mobile someone else is often heading the other direction.


1. Americans Are Living Far Beyond Their Means

A U.S. Government Accountability Office graph shows the dangers of continued deficit spending. Credit: GAO

America may be the wealthiest country in the world, but the federal government’s debt stands at 104.5 percent of its GDP, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competiveness Survey (don’t be too quick to despair; in Japan the figure is 243.2 percent). America’s debt load of $18.4 trillion may seem sustainable compared to some other countries, but unless government spending is cut drastically or economic growth improves markedly, Americans will be forced to continue funding their government’s profligate ways. And Americans’ personal debt load of $12.2 trillion, is nearly as bad as the country’s. Two-thirds of that is mortgage debt, but for households carrying any kind of debt, the average credit card debt tops $15,000, according to NerdWallet.com. As with Washington, our debts are rising faster than our incomes.

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Todd Hill has been a working journalist since 1987, with a focus on meteorology, climate studies and the Hollywood and independent film industries. After 20 years in the media maelstrom of New York City, Todd is now based on a farm in the rural highlands of central Ohio.