The other day I heard Cath ten Broeke speak from Heading Home Minnesota. It’s a program that strives to end homelessness in Hennepin County and Minneapolis by 2016. I remember thinking as she began to speak, “Well, that’s a bold and noble undertaking. Good luck getting it done!” It was hard to grasp the idea that homelessness, on some level, was not simply a natural condition. By the end of her presentation I thought, “Why do we so easily accept homelessness as a condition of life?”
Yesterday I saw a profile of Copenhagen and its people. It is a true, “cradle to grave” society. When a baby is born, mothers get a year of maternity leave. Education is free, and in fact, people are given what seems like a stipend as encouragement to attend school. Healthcare costs are a non-issue because everyone simply has it. If you lose your job, the government pays to 90% of your wages until you find another job, for up to four years (I don’t know what happens if you remain unemployed beyond four years but I imagine whatever happens probaly isn’t too harsh). People are paid to work and they also pay for all the services provided by the government. But they do not have a career structure that creates great disparities of pay for the work of an artist versus the work of an executive. Denmark’s citizens are encouraged – and given the security – to pursue their interests…to do what they genuinely want to do.
All of the sudden, the reality came crashing in on me. I can no longer tell the difference between my actual interests and my survival interest. I’ve been lucky enough to learn a great deal and do a lot of wonderful things in my life. But I have always had to mitigate my choices with my need for basic survival and existence. Like many Americans, I’ve spent so many years doing what I have to do to provide a decent life for my family – or doing things to make more money to build a better life – that I’m not even sure I know what I would do if, having a roof over my head, food on the table, the ability to go to the doctor, clothe my child, and access to education, were not all tied to how much money I can make.
In a perverse way, basic survival needs have become the main motivator for life decisions for many Americans. And fear of not meeting these base needs consume our energy and permeate our decisions about what to do with our lives. How many people stay at a job they dislike because, “they can’t afford to quit” meaning, their security and standard of living would be at risk if they left? How many people don’t go to school because they can’t afford the tuition? How many more leave school or fail because issues surrounding money dominated there life and energy, indirectly forcing them out of school? What does it do to us as a society that stability and security are monetarily tied to choices in a mate? How many women might choose to be with someone who is a nice person, even if not the highest bread earner, if the safety and security were not so tied to money? How many women stay with men who are abusive, or simply unkind, solely for the fear of being on the streets and not being able to survive if she walked out? How would we change our standard of what it means to be successful if how much we earn didn’t determine our quality of life or standard of living?
If being a civilized society means moving up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – away from getting base needs met and towards higher questions of human existence – and so much of our day to day stress in the U.S. boils down to mere survival-based worries, can we really call ourselves a civilized society?
America is the land of opportunity. People from all over the world come to the U.S. in hopes of building a better life. Life struggles in the U.S., even for the least fortunate among us, pale in comparison to the struggles of people in some other countries. But as my grandmother used to say, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Who do we want to compare ourselves to? What is the standard to which we want to hold ourselves for quality of life? Sure, our standard of living is better than in Malawi. So what? Should we feel better about having an relatively apathetic and inhumane society simply because someone else in the world is living a worse nightmare? And besides, what is at the root of problems in so many countries where people desire to come to the U.S.? How many desire to come to the U.S. because they cannot get basic needs met in their home country? When, you cannot get an education, you cannot get healthcare, there is no work, and you cannot eat everyday, of course America is attractive. But by what standard to we want to judge ourselves? Should we look at those with the least safety and satisfaction and say, “well things could always be worse; look at them.” Or should we look at countries who allow their citizens to move beyond questions of basic needs and survival and say, “why can’t we strive towards that?” When was the last time you met someone from Denmark who came to the U.S. looking for a better life?
I don’t think Denmark is a utopia. And the everyday challenges that come with a larger more diverse population are real. New York City could not be Copenhagen simply by virtue of size and lack of homogeny. But why should it be so hard to imagine a world where no one is homeless? Why should it be so difficult to comprehend the idea that no one should have to go to bed hungry? Why should it be so hard to imagine what you might do for a living if money weren’t an object? When will base needs and survival cease to be the driving force behind our life decisions? When can we as a society change (for the better) our measure for judging the worth of a person?
My definition of what it means to be a humane and civilized society has shifted. I hope that America can one day be a truly civilized society and give every citizen a real chance towards self-actualization.