Moral failures and the American Dream

I have a problem with the American Dream.  I was raised to believe that this is the ‘land of opportunity’ and that anyone can accomplish anything they want if they work hard enough.  While I still believe that, I am troubled by the other side of this coin: If we assume anyone can accomplish anything, we then assume that if someone has not succeeded  that they have done something wrong.

Nowhere is this presumption of moral failure on behalf of people struggling today more apparent than in conversations about the housing crisis.  The assumption is that anyone who has either lost their home to foreclosure or is in danger of doing so must have done something to deserve it.   Worse, people accuse distressed homeowners should not only be blamed for their problems but their irresponsibility caused the entire system to collapse.  The problem with this narrative is not that it is mean, which it is, but that it is not accurate.

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US foreclosures in October 2010

The stats on foreclosures prove my point.  Today, one in nine people worries about losing their home.  This year is on track to become the year when this country saw more foreclosures than any time in our history.  In 2009, 2.8 million homes were foreclosed on.  In 2010, it is predicted that more than three million people will suffer the same fate.  That translates into one out of every 200 homes.  That’s an average.  If you look at the map, you’ll see that in some areas, one in 79 homes will be affected.  If you live in an area even moderately impacted by the current crisis, if you own a home and are not in foreclosure, you know someone who is.

The two top reasons people go into foreclosure are a reduction in income or health problems.  If you think people who lose their jobs are to blame for that, well, look at California and how they have dealt with their financial crisis by asking workers to go months without a real paycheck.  These employees may have to accept an IOU in lieu of a paycheck but banks won’t accept that for a mortgage payment.  Go here for more detailed info on each state.

Medical debt is something unique to the United States.  If you are a believer in American exceptionalism, you should know we excel here.  More than 50 percent of personal bankruptcies are due to medial debt incurred by people with health insurance. The US is the only industrialized country to not offer its citizens universal health care.

I love the idea that the US provides so many opportunities to the people who live here.  It’s the reason millions come here every year.  We also have the capacity for compassion.  We need to stop blaming people who need help and start helping them.

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