Society Is Not a Dandelion: 5 Steps to Understanding
I find myself bewildered with the state of politics, education, and society as a whole. This election process is unequivocally the worst that I’ve seen in my lifetime. There isn’t a single politician out there offering up a plan that will actually solve societies woes (sorry, friends), but we all seem to think that they will — or at least can. We continue to discuss problems like they’re individual illnesses with an obvious solution, and failing to see the bigger picture of what’s happening in our society.
Here are 5 steps to help you understand why this issue belongs to us all.
1. Society is like your lawn
If I look at my lawn and see a dandelion, walk outside and pull it, I’ve solved the problem of there being one dandelion in my yard. But I’ve failed to address the underlying issues of seeds being spread, the large root system in the ground, and a means of keeping more dandelions from growing. That quick solution did nothing to solve the actual problem. Politics/society is no different, but yet we continue down a path of dandelion-pulling, and wondering why nothing is getting better.
As a trained Social Studies teacher in Illinois, let me use education as an example of this issue (and being an Illinoisan will make it even better). Governor Rauner (who I do not hate, just so you’re aware) has pledged to increase funding to the state education system. He says our schools are failing our students. I agree, and I don’t think he’s wrong in that statement. The problem though, is funding for schools is not the problem. It’s one of the problems. If I have lung cancer, and a brain tumor, removing that tumor isn’t going to keep me alive any longer, right?
At the same time, Gov. Rauner has vowed to cut funding to social programs, the same programs that make educating these students at all somewhat manageable. The research is out there, and it’s irrefutable: socio-economic welfare is one of the key components to being successful in school. Highly funded schools won’t solve anything, if the neighborhoods are crumbling, the infrastructure is deteriorating around them, people aren’t getting the help they need, and economic opportunity and mobility is near-zero. They’re interconnected problems that all need to be addressed simultaneously.
I can make the same argument about prison reform, pension overhauls, college funding, minimum wage, etc. None of these are isolated issues. They’re all singular dandelions with a vast and tangled tapestry occurring beneath the surface, out of sight.
2. Understand the importance Socio-Economic Opportunity Throughout Life
Bernie Sanders’ plan for free college is a valiant one, but will fail in its end goal. It won’t make society better, and will do little to achieve long-term equality. The end result of this program alone is an increase in income inequality, because it’s only pulling one dandelion from our lawn. Sorry Bernie supporters, but let me explain.
I’m a college educated male, with tons of student debt. Not having to make those payments would make my life tremendously easier. That said, despite spending the entirety of my childhood in a low-income household, I still lived in a suburb with good schools that were equipped to prepare me for college. I had great teachers; I had a school that could afford extra-curricular activities, sports, and art and shop classes. Our neighborhood was safe, I could walk to school, short commutes, bus service into the city, and we had a police force that was adequate for the situation. All of these things combined to create an opportunity from the very beginning of my life. The cost of college had nothing to do with this portion of my life.
Free college won’t help anyone that lacks these opportunities. Any person who is in a situation where the school can do little to prepare them for college in the first place, just won’t benefit from a cost-free college education. Despite what anyone might tell you, trust me when I say this, there are schools that simply do not have the resources to prepare students for the real world, let alone college. Those schools exist, and it’s a problem for all of society.
A free-college plan will only benefit those who already have a socio-economic leg up. It will do nothing to benefit those who don’t. This will only increase inequality, despite its best intentions. The problem isn’t the problem, the problem is our understanding of what the problem is, and our failure of addressing the underlying issues at work. Any plan that intends to correct socio-economic opportunity, has to address the entire complex underlying issues at work. And not one person on the ballot has a plan to do that.
3. No One Chose to Be Poor
Let’s begin by addressing the fact that we live in a nation where 5% unemployment is considered praise-worthy. But what that statement is really saying, is that 5% of working-age adults being unemployed is okay, and a good thing. If that’s the case, then we have an obligation to provide assistance for those 5% of people. That 5% fails to take into consideration the children of those families, the disabled, and the elderly who fell into that category during the course of their working life. That makes an awful lot of people who desperately need assistance through no fault of their own, but rather a system that “progressed” them out of jobs.
And the 95% of people out there who are employed can fall into the category of low-wage, or even minimum-wage work. If you work full time for minimum wage, you don’t qualify as unemployed, but life is going to be difficult. Even being gainfully employed can sometimes mean that life will be a constant economic struggle.
The hard truth is, there simply are not enough adequate-paying jobs to go around. And until we understand that, we will continue to fail these members of society. And we have an obligation to help them in whatever ways we can. Are we obligated to give them a comfortable existence? No. But we are obligated to provide them at least some modicum of a respectful existence, free of judgment. We have the resources to do so, and this is the price of technological progress. We have the ability to do more work with less people, and we must have the ability to provide in some way for those we’ve advanced out of work.
I’ve heard a plethora of people during this election cycle discuss poverty like it’s some sort of situation people have put themselves in. The problem with that though, is that I have yet to meet anyone who strives to be poor — it’s a misnomer about poverty. Alternatively, I know plenty of poor people who strive to be middle class, and struggle to achieve it, despite their best intentions. We can’t expect to understand the implications of poverty if we can’t grasp the causes of it.
Poverty is, for all intents and purposes, a cycle. And the biggest obstacle we face in dealing with it is ourselves. Just the other day, I saw a Facebook post that read:
I see you buying your groceries with food stamps, but talking on an iPhone! #priorities #MyTaxDollarsAtWork #MakeThatNotAtWork
That’s a problem for two reasons, first it’s placing judgment on someone using government assistance, and secondly it uses simple terms to address a complex situation.
In today’s connected societies, people need phones. People need access to computers and the internet. That’s how people get jobs these days. They apply online, and then someone calls them, right? With the rare exception of low-wage employment that still manages to get by with a paper application, you have to apply online. An iPhone, or any other smart phone, kills a lot of birds with one stone. Plus, with the growing number of pay-as-you-go plans out there, having an iPhone is not the major expense it used to be. But our failure to understand that complex reality, and use simple snap judgments, perpetuates a problem that all of society is facing.
4. Admit We Have a Poverty-Bias
It takes a lot to steer a big ship, but they can be turned. Progress is possible, and progress is not a negative term. Progress means society moves forward together, and no one gets left behind. Inevitably, there will be people who abuse the system (since I know someone will argue that. But, that’s not an excuse to scrap the whole system.
Do politicians take advantage of the system? Yes, but we aren’t going to scrap government.
Do professional sports take advantage of the tax-system? Yes, but we aren’t going to scrap professional sports.
Do corporations take advantage of tax loopholes? Yes, but we aren’t going to scrap corporations now, are we?
The only difference is who is taking advantage of the system. So if we all pay the price, in all of these situations, then we should have an equal anger for all of these situations, shouldn’t we? We don’t though, and that’s the problem. We have a bias against the poor, for whatever reason. Until we move past that bias, and until we understand that every system has its flaws and problems, then we can’t begin to accept the changes necessary to make society better. That’s just common sense.
So if the issue really does fall on a bias against leaches, then we would have an issue with all of these situations (and dozens more on to of it). Until we understand that this system is no more broken, and no more corrupt, than any other system in this country, then we can’t begin to move forward, and progress will stall.
5. Demand Better from Government
This one is simple. But we live in a country that relies on government to set the rules by which we operate. They set the budgets, and they can fund or defund at will. But until we demand that they do more with the money we give them, we can’t expect any major changes. And just electing a President isn’t going to solve any problems.
I’ll come back to Bernie Sanders one more time to drive this point home. Despite the controversy, Bernie’s math to pay for these changes is pretty sound. The problem is that they’re also unrealistic based on the current state of politics. After all, any bill that proposes a change to the tax system must start in the House of Representatives. Meaning, just because Bernie says this is how he’s going to change things, doesn’t mean they’ll actually change. The House, as it currently sits, will never allow it.
Honestly, they won’t allow anything, which brings me to my point: until we understand the importance of coming together, and progressing as a whole, we can’t complain when nothing changes. No one party is right, and no one party is wrong. Everyone has great points, and we have to be willing to listen to each other and understand. The opposing party is not our enemy, just like our own party can be from time to time. Government won’t change unless we change it, and despite being small, we have massive amounts of power.
The world is a complex place, and there is no simple solution to solve these problems. But we must understand the importance of addressing all of these underlying issues together, or we’re wasting valuable time and money. We’ve spent the past four decades doing this, and we aren’t any better off — we’re just angrier, and feel beat down. But doing our best to ask questions, look for causes, and try to see the biggest picture we can, is what’s going to move us all forward together.