November 4, 2020
In the fog and uncertainty of this day after Election Day, I am reflective. As we Americans decide by this election what values the 2020 majority share, I wonder how many of us take our phenomenal personal prosperity for granted. Even during this terrible pandemic, only 7.9% of us are officially out of work, says the BLS. The numbers demonstrate that most Americans can blithely assume we will always have gainful employment. And with lots of leisure couch potato time to watch Netflix and pig out on nachos.
Whereas in South Africa official unemployment hit 30.1% at the end of March—and that was before Covid’s impact. (Unemployment worsened to 42% in the second quarter of 2020.)
This picture of a South African job-seeker was heart-breaking to me, despite having often traveled to developing nations, including many trips to work or visit South Africa, where sights like this man and his sign are all too common.
While I’ve seen a great deal of deep poverty outside the USA, I’ve never become inured to it. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which I’ve often visited since 1991, young men and women working there have several times asked me to adopt them so they could come to the United States to get jobs. They love their country, they say, but can’t find work. Often they have told me of dreaming to send money back to South Africa to their moms and dads and brothers and sisters because their family members have been unable to find work for years. They have little money for food or to better their meager living conditions.
I always find a way to give them some pocket cash, usually through generous gratuities. After all, as a typical American, I have a comfortable surfeit of currency and never want for food. I can afford to share.
This election has made me wonder how many Americans are aware, except abstractly, of the routine challenges for daily food and shelter faced by a great many citizens of other countries like South Africa. In my experience, most folks in other places are eager to toil, like the young man above who is “strong to work.”
Could it be that Americans are heedless and incurious because extreme poverty beyond our borders is out of sight and out of mind, literally and figuratively foreign to them? I don’t believe that we can close our minds, hearts, and pocketbooks to the rest of humanity. We’re all in this together.
It always shocks me that many Americans do not travel. According to this 2019 Forbes article, 11% have never even left the state of their birth, and 13% have never flown on an airline. 40% have never traveled outside the USA, not even to Canada or Mexico, and 10% don’t want to go anywhere.
That’s not me. Travel is broadening, the best education one can experience. My life of travel has made me a witness to the struggles of cultures and people around our fragile, small planet. I admire their courage and character to seek work and to work hard. The vast majority of Americans used to share that view, a universal empathy inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty that defines what it means to be an American.
Through travel, I’ve confirmed firsthand that the world does not begin and end in the United States. Yet half of my fellow countrymen now believe it does. Or at least the results of yesterday’s election make me think that.
We used to do better, and we can again.