This essay was one of five finalists in The Nation‘s Third Annual Student Writing Contest.
A Harvard Law School diploma or two decades of service in the Senate are impressive qualifications for those who seek the presidency of the United States. But the most important prerequisite for assuming office cannot be fulfilled in the marble hallways of the nation’s elite institutions. Rather, it requires an experience devoid of privilege and power.
The gulf between rich and poor is rapidly accelerating, yet few Americans have ever come face to face with the staggering inequalities that the majority of the world’s citizens confront each day. In recent years, increasing numbers of the socially conscious have joined the battle against global poverty. Only a tiny fraction of Americans, however, have ever lived in the humiliating poverty that more than half the world endures daily.
Even as the price at the pump skyrockets and global warming looms ominously on the horizon, Americans continue to pathologically embrace denial. Propelled by self-delusion, we refuse to forgo the greedy overconsumption that our nation has institutionalized. More than anywhere else in the world, selfishness is a social disorder. Materialism has reached a fever pitch.
Meanwhile, we ignore the burden placed on the other 95 percent of the world’s inhabitants. While our overconsumption depletes the world’s resources, sparks geopolitical meltdowns on the scale of Iraq and breeds resentment and anger around the world, the majority of Americans take for granted our comparatively luxurious lifestyles.
Indeed, gaining a window into the lives of those who suffer the consequences of our greed is an important reality check for any American. Nevertheless, few US citizens–not to mention presidents–have ever seen the world from the perspective of the nearly 3 billion people who survive on less than $2 a day.
Although I’ve never endured such hardship, I have watched too many struggle with levels of poverty unknowable to most Americans. When I was 4, my family moved to rural Chile. There, I attended a kindergarten where students sharpened pencils with a kitchen knife for lack of a pencil sharpener, thirty kids fought over one dilapidated swing and paper of any form was virtually nonexistent.
The clear-cut inequalities between the lives of my friends at home in the United States and those of my Chilean peers were disturbing to me, even at such a young age. Later, my sense of injustice morphed into the anger I directed toward the Washington power brokers whose policies exploited families throughout the developing world, like those I met in Chile.
In middle school, my Mexican-American mother took me to live in central Mexico, where I saw girls my age with babies strapped to their backs. Homeless children who had likely never been inside a classroom tugged at my sleeve, peddling gum and cheap trinkets. Traveling across Mexico, I heard of village after village deserted by all the men who had gone north to find work. As I met those left behind, I began to understand why NAFTA left so many desperate for wages. In light of these realities, US immigration policies seemed risibly hypocritical.
Overwhelmed by the economic injustices for which American policies are largely responsible, I began to wonder: if the president of the United States understood the hardships of the millions battling to overcome the challenges of NAFTA and other US trade deals, would immigration reform finally take on new meaning?
If our next president watched a mother die in childbirth, as one in ten women do in many African countries, or saw a child perish of starvation, as 15 million do each year, would ending global poverty finally be a serious item on the national agenda? Would the United States begin spending more than 0.15 percent of its GNP on foreign aid?
If our president lived amid the havoc that America’s insatiable hunger for oil has wreaked upon the Middle East, would he uphold an economy driven by consumption rates thirty-two times higher than those in the developing world?
Ultimately, neither the United States nor the rest of the world can afford the toxic blend of materialism and militarism that has bubbled to the surface of our domestic and foreign policies. Our cultural neocolonialism has made the materialist American Dream ever more present in the developing world–and ever more elusive. As the rest of the world strives to catch up to our unsustainable levels of consumption, the suffering induced by the US policies that zealously protect the resources to which we claim entitlement will only be amplified.
Before even stepping foot in the Oval Office, President-elect Obama has talked about those whose footsteps he is walking in — those who have struggled every step of the way to get him to where he is. Let’s hope he remembers those folks as he takes the reins of power.