Fri, Oct 26, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The US’ lost generations

Societies can secure their futures by investing in nurturing and educating their young

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Illustration: Mountain People

A country’s economic success depends on the education, skills and health of its population. When its young people are healthy and well educated, they can find gainful employment, achieve dignity and succeed in adjusting to the fluctuations of the global labor market. Businesses invest more, knowing that their workers will be productive. Yet many societies around the world do not meet the challenge of ensuring basic health and a decent education for each generation of children.

Why is the challenge of education unmet in so many countries? Some are simply too poor to provide decent schools. Parents themselves may lack adequate education, leaving them unable to help their own children beyond the first year or two of school, so that illiteracy and innumeracy are transmitted from one generation to the next.

The situation is most difficult in large families (of say, six or seven children), because parents invest little in the health, nutrition and education of each child.

Yet rich countries also fail. The US, for example, cruelly allows its poorest children to suffer. Poor people live in poor neighborhoods with poor schools. Parents are often unemployed, ill, divorced or even incarcerated. Children become trapped in a persistent generational cycle of poverty despite the society’s general affluence. Too often, children growing up in poverty end up as poor adults.

A remarkable new documentary film, The House I Live In, shows that the US’ story is even sadder and crueler than that, owing to disastrous policies. Starting around 40 years ago, US politicians declared a “war on drugs,” ostensibly to fight the use of addictive drugs like cocaine. As the film clearly shows, the war on drugs became a war on the poor, especially on poor minority groups.

In fact, the war on drugs led to mass incarceration of poor, minority young men. The US now imprisons around 2.3 million people at any time, a substantial number of whom are poor people arrested for selling drugs to support their own addictions. As a result, the US has ended up with the world’s highest incarceration rate — a shocking 743 people per 100,000.

The film depicts a nightmarish world in which poverty in one generation is passed on to the next, with the cruel, costly and inefficient “war on drugs” facilitating the process.

Poor people, often African-Americans, cannot find jobs or have returned from military service without skills or employment contacts. They fall into poverty and turn to drugs.

Instead of receiving social and medical assistance, they are arrested and turned into felons. From that point on, they are in and out of the prison system and have little chance of ever getting a legal job that enables them to escape poverty. Their children grow up without a parent at home — and without hope and support. The children of drug users often become drug users themselves; they, too, frequently end up in jail or suffer violence or early death.

What is crazy about this is that the US has missed the obvious point — and has missed it for 40 years. To break the cycle of poverty, a country needs to invest in its children’s future, not in the imprisonment of 2.3 million people a year, many for non-violent crimes that are symptoms of poverty.

Many politicians are eager accomplices to this lunacy. They play to the fears of the middle class, especially middle-class fear of minority groups, to perpetuate this misdirection of social efforts and government spending.

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