The word “exceptionality” has several words related to it, i.e., incomprehensible, inconceivable, and unimaginable to name a few. As one looks at some of the core issues outlined below faced by a large number of American citizens, it seems incomprehensible or impossible to understand or improbable to believe that such issues could be occurring at this very moment in the richest, most powerful nation in the world.
Several of these incomprehensible issues: poverty, homelessness, hunger-food insecurity, quality of life/sense of well-being and incarceration are experienced by U.S. citizens more than those in other developed and industrialized countries.
- Poverty: Studies suggest that the U.S. has the highest rates of poverty in the developed world. In addition, the U.S. leads nations in having the highest rate of child poverty at 20.0 vs an overall average of 11.7 percent. When compared to 25 other nations, poverty in the U.S. is substantially higher and more extreme.
- Homelessness: In 2022, over a half-million Americans were experiencing homelessness. Over 2.5 million children, one in every 30 in the U.S. are homeless. Homelessness has been described as an acute problem; in the richest country in the world, people live on the streets and experience bad weather, extreme heat and crime.
- According to recent estimates in 2022, over 42 million people in the U.S. including 13 million children are food insecure. One in six children in the U.S. faces hunger, and for much free breakfast and lunch served at school may be the only healthy meal they receive on some days. However, some members of Congress have opposed extending the waiver for free lunches, arguing that the waiver was never meant to be permanent and extending it another year would increase the deficit.
- Quality of life/sense of well-being: The United States ranks 16th as the happiest country in the world, lagging behind Ireland, Germany, and Canada and Finland remains the happiest country. What America now faces are “deaths of despair” which have been rising steeply since 2000 among white non-Hispanic Americans between fifty and fifty-four years of age. These deaths of despair result from three direct causes: suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol-related deaths (Case and Deaton, 2021, cited in Bireda, (2022).
- Incarceration: The United States is exceptional in the number of American citizens imprisoned. The U.S. leads other countries in the world in incarceration. The U.S. with approximately 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. One in every 100 American adults is incarcerated, 5-10 times higher than in other democracies. Untreated individuals with mental illness make up a large segment of the imprisoned while 40% of those imprisoned are black, despite African Americans making up only 13.3 % of the U.S. population.
All of the issues described above have one element in common: inequality. While the per capita income is higher in the U.S., it is also less evenly distributed than in most other developed countries. The widest rich-poor gap of any high-income nation exists in the U.S., and it continues to grow. The social safety net that is available in other developed and industrialized countries is resisted in the U. S. because of the stigma and attitudes toward poverty.
Homelessness is impacted by poverty, mental illness, and addiction; however, affordable housing is the main problem. Rents for lower-income individuals are off-limits for these persons but policies that limit the number of available affordable homes are the result of attitudes toward the poor and resistance to low-income housing.
The COVID pandemic laid open the extent of the problem of food insecurity. Historic racism and classism, and discrimination in employment, education, economic opportunity have led to higher rates of hunger and food insecurity, especially among households of color.
The value of individualism and the cultural conditioning related to racial identity, especially that of white males has greatly impacted by a sense of powerlessness as they are unable to meet their basic needs and feel victimized in society.
Those most likely to be jailed in the U.S. are poor, uneducated people of color, many of whom suffer mental health problems. The core cause of this racial disparity in incarceration is the stereotype of the criminal black man which created the harsh sentences as part of the War on Drugs.
It has been suggested and even codified into law that Civic classes teach “unapologetic American exceptionalism”. It would probably, however, be more beneficial to our students of today who will become leaders of tomorrow that they are taught to address issues like those above which relate to race and class inequality that exists in the United States. In studying the “why” of current inequality in the U.S., students will necessarily learn accurate, not apologetic U. S. history.
Rather than focusing on the mythology of the past, students will become aware of current American exceptions as related to other developed countries that impact the lives of their citizens and learn how to resolve these issues. Knowledge of the past will provide cues to the reality of the present. If students of today, were made aware of these “extraordinary” conditions experienced by too many Americans, they as future leaders could find ways to resolve these problems and make America a truly exceptional nation.