With over 329 million people living in its 50 states, the United States has many social issues. The American political system and culture are also highly influential on a global level, so what goes on there affects people around the world. What issues should everyone keep their eyes on? Here are ten examples:
#1. Student debt
In a 2022 article, Forbes lists jarring student loan debt statistics in the United States. The total student debt is $1.75 trillion in federal and private loans. On average, borrowers each owe almost $29,000. About 92% of all student debt comes from federal student loans. This matters because the student loan debt growth rate is outpacing the rise in tuition by 353.8%. Federal relief measures aren’t enough. In 2020, collective student debt rose by over 8%. Many can’t pay their loans. When borrowers fall behind, their credit score gets hit, making other forms of debt relief impossible. Without additional lines of credit, people keep sinking into debt. Why is this happening? Rising tuition costs are a clear cause, but cuts in state funding for higher education and stagnant wages are responsible, too. Debt cancellations would make a big difference right away, but tuition costs, cuts, and wages need to be addressed, as well.
#2. Wage inequality
An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that from 1979-2020, wages for the top 1.0% jumped by 179.3%. The top 0.1% saw even more growth: 389.1%. For the bottom 90%, wages grew a measly 28.2%. Inequality has been getting worse. In 2020, the bottom 90% received 60.2% of all wages, which is the lowest share since data tracking started in 1937. In 2021, the top 10% of Americans had 70% of all U.S. wealth. The difference between CEO pay and the pay of typical workers also demonstrates a stark inequality. Between 1978-2018, CEO pay increased more than 900% while the typical worker only saw an increase of 11.9%. The old saying “the rich keep getting rich” rings true in the United States.
A functioning and affordable healthcare system remains elusive in the United States. According to a KFF analysis of government data, around 1 in 10 adults have medical debt. 3 million people owe more than $10,000. Black adults, people with disabilities, and those in poor health are most likely to have significant medical debt. Overall, Americans owe hundreds of billions of dollars. COVID-19 also exposed many cracks in the healthcare system. A 2021 article listed barriers to healthcare access, price and costs, inequity, the marginalization of public health, and quality issues as the longest-standing systemic problems made worse by the pandemic. The United States’ system was simply not equipped to handle the pandemic well. To deal with future pandemics and the everyday health and wellness of those within its borders, the United States healthcare system needs an overhaul.
In most places in the United States, affordable housing is very challenging to find. According to Pew Research, 49% of Americans said finding affordable housing in their community was a “major problem” in 2021. This is an increase of 10 percentage points from early 2019. Stagnant wages are deeply entwined with housing concerns. According to a 2021 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, no workers in any state could afford a two-bedroom rental home with wages earned from a standard 40-hour work week. In New York, people would need to work 94 hours a week at the state’s $12.50/hour wage to afford a 1-bedroom rental. In California, there’s a $14.00/hour minimum wage, which gets you a 1-bedroom rental with 89 hours of work per week. Renting a 1-bedroom in Texas, with its $7.25/hour wage, requires a 100-hour work week. Issues like stagnant wages, debt, and soaring prices are also making home ownership a distant dream for many people, especially Millenials. According to Apartment List, 18% of millennial renters plan on renting forever due to affordability issues with ownership.
#5. Voting rights
Because of its effect on every other issue, the attack on voting rights is arguably the most concerning problem in the United States. The Brennan Center For Justice tracks restrictions and between January 1 and December 7 in 2021, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting voting access. Republicans have always wanted stricter voting laws, but in the wake of the Big Lie that Joe Biden stole the presidential election, they’ve escalated their attacks. The Center continued to track laws, finding that as of May 4 in 2022, at least 34 bills with restrictive provisions were moving through 11 state legislatures. For the entire 2022 legislative session, 39 states will be considering almost 400 restrictive voting bills. Restrictions include limiting mail-in voting, restricting Sunday voting, establishing new or stricter voter ID laws, and more. These laws not only restrict voter access but prop up lies about election integrity and weaken voter trust in results.
#6. Reproductive rights
Fulfilling decades of work from conservative politicians and activists, the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that established abortion as a Constitutional right. Politico broke the story in May when they received a draft majority opinion penned by Justice Samuel Alito. The report was soon confirmed as authentic, sparking protests and outrage. When the official ruling arrives, reproductive rights in the US will be immediately weakened. 13 states already have “trigger” laws on the books, which means as soon as Roe is overturned, abortion will become illegal in those states with few to no exceptions. States have already restricted abortion rights in tricky ways, such as enforcing bans with civil lawsuits instead of criminal prosecution. Oklahoma recently established the country’s strictest abortion ban, including a bill that makes performing an abortion a felony, punishable by up to a decade in prison, with no exceptions for incest or rape. With the reversal of Roe, attacks on contraception would also be easier. In The Guardian, the faculty co-director for the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University is quoted: “Once you throw down the best-known decision in that category of cases, every single other case is now up for grabs.”
#7. Book banning in schools
In recent months, education advocates, librarians, teachers, and others have watched in horror as book bans increase across the country. For its first formal count of books banned, PEN America collected over 1,500 instances of individual books being banned over nine months. Bans have occurred in 26 states across 86 school districts. This represents almost 3,000 schools serving over 2 million students. Books have always been challenged in school libraries, but 41% of the bans listed in PEN’s Index found ties to state officials or elected lawmakers. PEN describes this as an “unprecedented shift.” The books challenged mostly involve sexual education, LGBTQ+ identities, and the teaching of race and racism. Conservative groups like Moms for Liberty often use “parental rights” to justify book bans. Could bans extend beyond school libraries? A Virginia legislator sued Barnes & Noble with the intent to stop the bookstore from selling two so-called obscene books to minors without parental consent. This is a fairly new surge of book bans, but it’s currently one of the most pressing social issues in the US.
#8. LGBTQ+ rights
In 2022, the rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ+ community and their allies has escalated. Conservative media pundits and politicians alike have started throwing around the term “groomer,” a throwback attack accusing gay and trans people of preying on children and “recruiting” them. NPR names Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist also responsible for the crusade against critical race theory, as one of the earliest and main promoters of this tactic. Tucker Carlson, who hosts the country’s top news cable show, has also accused teachers of “grooming” students when they talk about gender and sexual identities. Attacks have gone beyond rhetoric and seeped into the law. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill is the most prominent, but in the first 3 months of 2022, 238 anti-LGBTQ+ bills (most targeting trans people) were filed around the country. Groups opposing gay rights have also collected millions in support of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. This level of hostility is extremely concerning and suggests a backward trajectory for LGBTQ+ rights.
#9. Climate justice
Scientists and activists have been warning about climate change for decades, but little has been done. The United States is starting to see harsher effects of climate change. In 2021, three severe winter storms moved across the United States, causing the worst energy infrastructure failure in Texas state history. There were shortages of energy, water, and food. In a final report, the Department of State Health Services identified 246 deaths, though the death toll could be higher. One study suggested that warming in climate change-triggered Arctic warming could be responsible for the storms, as warming increases polar vortex outbreaks. Warm air weakens polar vortexes, they stretch and move south, causing the kinds of storms seen in Texas. Climate change also extends wildfire seasons and worsens heat waves, like the one in June 2021 in the Pacific Northwest, which killed hundreds. “Unusual” events like this will only become more commonplace, so action is essential.
Racism has been a social issue in the United States for hundreds of years. In the summer of 2020, the country saw the largest civil rights protest movement since the 1960s. Not shockingly, there’s been a backlash to the progress sought by anti-racist activists. Book bans, which we discussed earlier, are a common attack as bans target the education of children and their understanding of race and racism in the United States. Racism also takes the form of blatant violence. In May, an 18-year-old killed 10 people in a planned attack on Black people. His “manifesto” explained his motives, which included the Great Replacement Theory, an ideology that claims White people are being replaced. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center survey, around 7 in 10 Republicans believed to some extent that liberal politicians are trying to gain power by “replacing more conservative white voters.” That doesn’t mean 7 in 10 Republicans will undertake an act of violence, but it shows how prevalent racist ideologies are.