Years ago I was told by a doctor that cultivating my health was more important than fighting off sickness. I remember at the time how his reframing of the relationship between sickness and health sort of jolted me into a different orientation to my body. “Health isn’t the absence of sickness,” he said to me.” Sickness is the absence of health.” I understood from that time forward that proactively fostering and maintaining the health of my body was a responsibility I could not ignore, from the food I ate to the way I exercised to various lifestyle decisions. I couldn’t just be casual about such things and then, if I were to get sick, simply hope to suppress or eradicate the symptoms of illness. A healthy lifestyle involves a conscious decision to cultivate something you want, not just fight off something that you don’t.
It’s clear that a society too can be healthy or sick. We cultivate societal health through education, economic well-being and adequate healthcare, just as we cultivate physical health through food, exercise and lifestyle. Looking at the level of cause rather than merely the symptoms of our societal dysfunctions – from addiction to crime to our mental health crisis to chronic economic anxiety – we begin to understand that as a society we’ve gotten so sick because we’ve diminished our commitment to doing what would make us healthy.
If education, healthcare, and economic opportunity are the means by which to proactively cultivate societal health, then no one should be surprised that American society is so unwell.
Until the 1960’s and 1970’s, public colleges and universities were far easier to attend. The University of Florida, for example, was free for in-state students for many decades. The City University of New York system waived tuition up until 1976. The University of California system was created in 1868 with the decree that “admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the state,” their community-college system following suit. Yet starting in the late ‘60’s, California’s newly elected governor Ronald Reagan felt strongly that college should not be tuition free. Within years, California was spending more on prisons and prison construction than on all education systems throughout the state.
By the late 1980’s, college had become so expensive around the country that people were flocking to take out federal student loans. In 1986, parents and students had incurred nearly $10 billion in federal student loans, a sum considered at that time to be humungous. Today, of course, that debt has ballooned to over $1.6 trillion.
Millions who took out college loans in order to better their financial prospects have found themselves so weighed down by college loan debt that they’ve locked themselves into a worse economic situation than they would have had they never bothered. Many of the 43 million Americans who now owe money on their college loans aren’t even working in the field for which they got a degree, for no other reason than that it won’t make them enough money to pay off their debt!
Between that, and a lack of universal health care, millions of Americans are forced into working at jobs they do not love, in which they find neither purpose nor meaning nor real prospects for advancement, because they cannot make ends meet in any other way. The fact that unemployment figures are down at any given time is of itself an inadequate measure of how many Americans work at jobs that provide them any satisfaction beyond the ability to simply survive.
Sixty per cent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, unable to afford an unexpected $400 expenditure. One third of American workers live on less than $15 an hour, and cannot afford a one bedroom apartment in any city in the country. While the federal minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour – not having been raised since 2009 – a living wage in most American cities is more like $24 or $25. Half our seniors live on less than $25,000 a year. More than 34 million Americans, including 9 million children, are food insecure, yet SNAP benefits – inconceivably to me – are being cut for millions of people as emergency COVID measures come to an end.
Debt is crippling, yet three out of four Americans now live with it and assume they always will. Whereas the American dream used to be to own a house with a white picket fence, today’s dream for many would be to get out of debt before they die. While twenty per cent of Americans are living financially advantaged lives, eighty percent of our citizens live in a sea of economic despair.
Unlike every other advanced democracy, Americans do not have universal healthcare. One in four Americans now carry medical debt, which collectively has ballooned to $88 billion. Over a million Americans ration their insulin, and 18 million cannot afford to pay for the prescriptions given to them by doctors. 68,000 Americans die each year from lack of any healthcare at all, while many who survive are putting go-fund me pages on the internet to raise money for lifesaving operations.
The lifesaving operation America most needs now is for enough Americans to say “Enough is Enough!” With so many indicators of societal health being what they are, we should not feign confusion over why our society is so sick. Our society is troubled because so many of our people are! Issues of education, healthcare and economics all meet at the intersection of hopelessness and despair.
None of the above will fix itself at this point, because the injustice of it all is baked into the cake. Our political power structure does not concern itself with creating a healthy society; it concerns itself with managing a sick one. Which means that the system that is meant to heal us, itself is very sick.
It will take a revolution of the heart – what Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “a qualitative shift in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our circumstances” – for America to heal itself. Until then, we will watch the health of our society continue to decline: not because it’s necessary, but simply because it’s our passive choice. Our unwillingness to demand change at such a time as this, is a diseased condition in and of itself.
My campaign is for those willing to stand for revolutionary love at a time of such despair for so many. While healing our own hearts, we are ready to help heal the world.