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Morality in America

by Justin Perryman about a year ago in opinion

The advertised principles of America vs the reality.

Black Lives Matter protests outside of the whitehouse

Since I was a child, I believed firmly in the principles I was taught that America was built on the foundation that all people are created equal and deserved of the opportunity to pursue happiness while living on American soil. As I grew up, I held these teaching to be true without ever questioning or looking at the reality of the state America is in.

Now as an adult, I frequently find myself questioning if America itself held those same values to the same truth as it had advertised. Since I’ve grown, I’ve noticed an abundance of greed, prejudices, classism, selfishness, and predatory behavior that contradicts the claimed foundation of this nation. But an important question to ask oneself when making such an observation is “how did we get here?” An easy place to start is the distribution of wealth. Bestselling author, entrepreneur, and real estate mogul, Grant Cardone has written that about 76% of the people in the United States live paycheck to paycheck. Also, according to a chart in howmuch.net, about 49% of Americans make less than $30,000 a year.

The result of this is that a disproportionate number of hard-working American people are struggling to afford to live because of wages failing to catch-up to inflation. In fact, according to an article from Forbes written by president and founder of Bersin & Associates, Josh Bersin, wages after inflation have barely budged over the last 44 years. But what does this mean for American freedom? If the American people cannot make a decent living, they cannot afford freedom. Meaning families living in poor income households cannot afford to have move to better neighborhoods, send their children to good schools, have vacations, etc.; if they cannot afford these basic things that are, in my opinion, prime examples of American freedoms, then it goes without being said that they cannot financially afford to improve their situations.

This paints America in a different light where freedom is no longer universal. It limits freedom as a privilege for the elite and the wealthy excluding those unfortunate enough to be born poor.

One might suggest that Americans in this situation should simply “work harder” but I would argue that if this affects 76% of American citizens, the issue isn’t lack of work, it’s lack of rewarded work. The ideology that hard work equals better living is naïve at best and strategically ignorant at worst. There is no “dealing with it” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” These simply are not effective solutions for the economic disparity in America. The playing field that the American citizens are playing on is no longer even, if it ever truly was.

One available solution, the pursuit of higher education, isn’t as easy as it seems. College is expensive. In a survey posted by Business Insider, America is ranked 6th in highest tuition fees with an outstanding total tuition fee cost of $91,832. And according to debt.org the total amount of American education debt has reached an outstanding $1.4 Trillion with $2,858 student debt accrued every second. With student debt levels being this steep, it has turned higher education into another privilege almost exclusive to the wealthy.

An answer to this issue is grants, scholarships, and student loans. However, grants seldom completely cover the costs of schooling. And if a student’s parents make too much money, the grants may not be available to them anyway. Ironically, it makes higher education immensely more expensive for that individual because the criteria limit grants to household incomes below a certain level. Many parents who exceed that level are not able to or choose not to pay for their child’s education.

The next problem we have with financial aid is scholarships, which are never guaranteed. The majority of students in the American education system never benefit scholarships. Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized expert on student financial aid, has calculated that there have only been 1,581,000 scholarships awarded to undergraduates. The scholarships totaled $6.1 billion with an average of $3,852 issued from the 2015 academic year.

In 2016 there were 77.2 million students attending college across the country in America and 16.9 million of those students were undergraduates according to the census and nces.gov. And as stated by Kantrowitz, only 8.1% of undergraduates received scholarships. I started college around 2015 and I have yet to receive a scholarship despite my high GPA and me being an honor student. As a student, I myself has applied to numerous scholarships only to lose it to someone else or not hear back from the scholarship provider because many scholarships are rewarded by chance.

In fact, majority of scholarship opportunities that have been presented to me were “raffle scholarships” that required some form of task, be it academic or manual, to even apply. The tasks would be completed by many students only for the scholarship to go to one student simply because of the luck of the draw. While it is true there are other scholarships that are most certainly not raffle-based, they are harder to find and only present themselves to students the way raffle-based scholarships do.

Although scholarships can be more reliable than grants, they don’t completely suit the needs of every student applying for them. But the biggest issue with financial aid in America is the predatory loan system. One of the initial problems with student loans do a lot with not being able to choose a loan provider.

A loan provider is assigned to you and the issue with this lies with the policies of the loan provider. Normally when choosing a loan provider, you would opt for a loan provider who will provide the best service, have reasonable policies, and will work with clients to obtain the best quality of customer satisfaction but college students are robbed of the choice. If a student is assigned a predatory loan provider, that is just their loan provider. This enables a cycle of herding students like cattle to loan providers that only intend to take advantage of them, discouraging not only the use of loans, but the act of going to school for a higher education.

Another issue that loans bring to upcoming students is the loan to grant ratio. On average students are offered way more financial aid in student loans than grants which means those who cannot land a dependable scholarship, which as stated before most don’t, they’re essentially paying for college out of pocket with interests rates that vary depending on how unforgiving or otherwise predatory their loan provider decides to be with grants being a mere discount on the costs of college.

Paying off these loans are an uphill battle as well as pointed out by Elissa Nadworny, reporter and editor for npr.org, about 7 million former students who have defaulted on their loans at the end of 2018 and the number continues to climb by about 1 million every year and this is only counting people who have gone 360 days without payment, rather than 270. Elissa also points out that low income students who qualified for the federal Pell Grant, which is the program that essentially gives them free money, were more likely to default than students who did not qualify.

What makes matters worse is the fact that you can be sued for not paying back loans after defaulting. According to the department of Justice reports, over 3,300 student borrowers have been sued for defaulting by the government in the past 2 years and in almost every case the borrower loses. If the government wins the case, they can place a lien on your home and even force a sale.

What this tells me is that American schooling has become a viscous system of exploitation on the more naïve or otherwise underprepared populace who aren’t entirely to blame since America itself has been forcing the advertisement of college education onto the public without educating students on the risks or behaviors of loan providers or even giving the option to choose which loan provider you can choose from.

This, and many other factors such poorly funded public education ultimately results in a large portion of young and often disadvantaged adults being crippled by overwhelming debt early on in life or just flat out denies certain people the right to higher education due to financial status and monetary issues the more educated are aware they cannot handle.

What is the result of such a system? While there are multiple outcomes to this, many of them negative, one of the most insidious outcomes is one that America profits from and still ravages certain parts of the population to this very day: crime.

In a direct quote from a study by senior policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, Bernadette Rabuy and Quartz’s data editor Daniel Kopf: “The American prison system is at the seams with people who have been shut out of the economy and had neither a quality education nor access to good jobs. In 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration.”

What this says is the embodiment of the prison populace mostly incorporates poorer individuals. This may be because people with less money are less likely to have proper assistance in the courtroom. Meaning whether or not the crime was severe or actually committed the suspect in defense would have no experts defending them in the courtroom, which is what this data essentially infers.

The study from the Prison Policy Initiative also goes further into detail in saying “The gap in income is not solely the product of the well-documented disproportionate incarcerations Blacks and Hispanics, who generally earn less than Whites.”

This data reveals that the rate of incarceration is not only a monetary but a racial one. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice in 2013 37% of the men in prison were black, 32% were white, and 22% were Hispanic while white women constituted for 49% of the prison populace and black women accounted for 22%. But recently in a 2019 statistic posted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 58.5% in total inmates were white and 37.7% were black.

These numbers may sound like an improvement on the racial disparity in the prison ratios, but it is quite the opposite. 72.4% of the population is white and only a small portion being 12.6% of the populace being black. The US population has a total of 329,571,239 people living in the USA as of April 27, 2020.

Assuming that the percentage was mostly unchanged from 2019 to 2020, 12.6% of 329,571,239 is 41,525,976 people. After calculating that, we must calculate how much of that percentage is incarcerated and 37.7% of the current black populace is roughly 15,655,292. That is about 1 out of every 4th black person ending up incarcerated and that is only one minority group.

Black people also face the issue of more jail time. Former journalist and current data fellow for the Marshall Project, Weihua Li, talks about in a research article how the racial disparity still effects people to this day.

In a quote from Li, “While arrest and prison admission rates are dropping for black people—in 2016, people went to state prison at five times the rate of white people, down from eight times in 2000—they are spending longer in prison than their white peers.”

Christopher Ingraham, writer for the Washington post also adds in that black men receive nearly 20% more prison time than white people on average, using data from an updated version of the 2012 booker report. Christopher states that the sentencing disparities have been increasing over the years and pinpointed the cause of this stemming from the supreme court’s decision to involve more discretion for federal judges on sentencing; making it easier to impose harsher or more lenient sentences, while simultaneously disregarding sentencing guidelines set by the USSC.

Behind the unproportionate difference in races in prison races, lies a similar issue having to do with police racial bias. The factors supporting this comes from police quotas, racial profiling, and police bias. Defined by legal scholar and law specialist Shaun Ossei-Owusu, police quotas are formal and informal measures that require police officers to meet a certain number of tickets and arrests within a specific time frame. The issue with this is the victims of these police quotas.

Often racial profiling and police quotas go hand in hand. In an exposé using several direct quotes from commanding officers written by Joseph Goldstein and Ashley Southall, officers tend to target Hispanic and black people more often than those of fairer skin. The statements “you are stopping too many Russian and Chinese” and “You should write more Black and Hispanic people” were part of a discrimination suit in New York.

The two Washington post writers also reinforce the evidence of racial profiling in New York by explaining Black people and Hispanics make up 90% of the citizens arrested rather than ticketed for minor crimes. Although these are heinous, they are only surface issues that have to do with police relations with the public.

In 2016, 10 police officers came forward to NBC New York with information confirming that police departments are still going by quota-based arrests and mostly targeting minority neighborhoods, despite them being unethical and immoral. In the news headline they also went on to discuss how they’ve faced disciplinary action from the NYPD for not only failing to meet said arrest quotas but defying them. Meaning the police department itself glosses over justice in order to meet a monthly quota.

Police officers also exhibit brutal behavior toward people of color when attempting to meet their arrest quotas. A prime and unforgettable example is Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland worked in a food-service equipment supplier, which was a job she quit shortly before her death. She was a social justice activist in Illinois and Texas up until her death in 2015. In 2015, Sandra was pulled over for a minor traffic violation.

Sandra records the now former officer, Brian Encinia, to keep records of the situation and the officer would proceed to threaten her with a taser. After events escalate, the officer would then proceed to forcibly remove her from her car and force her to the ground in brutal fashion to initiate an arrest.

Sandra died in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas from an alleged suicide by hanging. The Officer would later be indicted for perjury after making false statements about the conditions of Sandra’s arrest and it resulted in the termination in his job. The aftermath of Sandra Bland’s death sparked a public outrage, numerous protests and even started a film revolving around the case and events that took place, as well as a look into the personal life of Sandra Bland before her death. Sandra’s recording of the situation was released some time in 2019.

Sandra’s case is still relevant to this day because the brutality and profiling still occurs in America. Even during events taking place during the writing of this paper, I.E.: The Coronavirus, the privileged and the non-people of color, face different realities when it comes to the justice system.

Again, we see ourselves talking about New York, where Poppy Noor, writers for Guardian US points out if you’re white and you violate social distancing, the kind and generous police officers hand you a mask and takes pictures with you. However, if you are brown and you’re seen without a mask, even with no other individual in sight, the only thing you are handed is a ticket, and sometimes a beating.

A reader might look at this paper and ask themselves once more “How did we get here?” How did being poor become a punishable offense? How did being a person of color in the “land of freedom” become such a different experience for those who are not? The answer I have to provide from personal experience is simple: it’s always been like this.

These issues have always been cracks in the foundation of America. But this wasn’t written with the expectation that these issues would be solved overnight. The purpose of this paper is to call the problem out.

America has never been great for everyone, in my opinion. America has disregarded the poor, the needy, and the minorities. Although it isn’t too late to fix the issue, in order to fix the issue, America has to take responsibility and face the issue. Because the biggest issue America has that overlaps the other issues involved in this paper is the willful ignorance on the suffering of others.

It will take nerve, education, and true solidarity to tackle the problems we see today. It is only when we stop pretending there is no problem, that we can truly begin to fix these problems.

Sources

Low wages:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2018/10/31/why-arent-wages-keeping-up-its-not-the-economy-its-management/#3c2dd89f397e

https://howmuch.net/articles/top-30-wealthiest-people-in-america

https://wallethacks.com/average-median-income-in-america/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/08/10/america-wage-growth-is-getting-wiped-out-entirely-by-inflation/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/14/opinion/columnists/great-recession-economy-gdp.html?nytapp=true

Student loan debt and the cost of college:

https://www.debt.org/students/

https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/student-debt-rising-worldwide

https://www.edsys.in/best-education-system-in-the-world/

https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/student-debt-kids-struggle-pay-school-meals-190926184254929.html

Predatory loan system:

https://www.savingforcollege.com/article/college-scholarships-statistics

https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/school-enrollment.html

https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/09/738985632/these-are-the-people-struggling-the-most-to-pay-back-student-loans

Police and court:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States

https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_race.jsp

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html

https://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/15/archives/equal-justice-for-the-poor-too-far-too-often-moneyor-the-lack-of.html

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/12/03/the-growing-racial-disparity-in-prison-time

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/16/black-men-sentenced-to-more-time-for-committing-the-exact-same-crime-as-a-white-person-study-finds/

https://prospect.org/justice/race-tragedy-quota-based-policing/

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/nyregion/nyc-police-subway-racial-profiling.html

https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/nypd-officers-arrest-quota-exclusive-interview-pressure-numbers/748594/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Sandra_Bland

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/07/sandra-bland-new-video-prompts-family-demand-case-reopened/1134357001/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/04/coronavirus-new-york-police-enforce-social-distancing

opinion

Justin Perryman

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