“On behalf of the American people, we promote and demonstrate democratic values abroad, and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.” This is the mission statement of USAID, a US government agency tasked with administering foreign aid and development assistance. In 2019 USAID spent US$39.3B investing in economic development projects around the world.
Yet at the same time, major cities in the US face a host of development issues, as many families do not have access to proper housing and education. How can a country “demonstrate democratic values” and “advance prosperity” when children within its most prosperous cities are deprived of adequate housing, healthcare, and education? What will it take for the US to treat “economic conditions” within its own cities as it would “development issues” abroad?
Within the United States’ own borders, the city of San Francisco seems to embody the model of economic prosperity and innovation that USAID is hoping to disseminate globally. The rapid growth of the tech industry in Silicon Valley has transformed the city into an epicentre of innovation and research and development (R&D), resulting in skyrocketing real estate prices. The industry itself claims to be at the cutting-edge of civilization, as giants such as Google and Facebook operate under the pretense of being forward-thinking, inclusive companies who seek the betterment of the human condition.
Underneath the facade of economic, technological, and social accomplishments of Silicon Valley, however, is a much harsher reality; the rewards of San Francisco’s rapidly expanding economy have not been shared equally. Income inequality in San Francisco is significantly higher than the US average, a staggering fact given that the US lags behind all other Western countries in this department. Between 2009 and 2019 the city’s housing prices increased by a striking 78%, with the median home value at US$1.4M and median rent at $3,100 in April of 2019. During the same period, the rate of homelessness increased by 50% and poverty increased by 8%. In the past decade, the city has seen an alarming increase in unsanitary public spaces, drug use, property crime, and HIV cases. Notably, overdoses on methamphetamine and fentanyl have killed 3 times more people than COVID-19 in San Francisco since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The housing crisis has had a major impact on children. As of 2017, a study conducted by Stanford found that around 4% of students schooled by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) were “homeless or highly mobile (HHM)”. The actual rate of HHM students in SFUSD is probably much higher, as the data relies on individuals and families to self-identify as “homeless” or “highly mobile”, which many are reluctant to do. In addition, Black and Latino students are overrepresented in the percentage of HHM students, while White and Asian students are underrepresented, a factor that contributes to long-lasting racial inequality.
Homelessness has detrimental effects on a child’s education and development. Children with uncertain living conditions are shown to be prone to developing PTSD, psychosis, and memory impairment. Housing uncertainty can lead to long-term health problems, as the chronic stress of poverty suppresses growth and brain development and impairs the cardiac and digestive systems. HHM students are also almost twice as likely as the national average to be absent from class, further impairing their ability to advance in education.
The ramifications of housing insecurity on children have lifelong effects, as they hinder one’s ability to pursue higher education and economic autonomy. Furthermore, poverty and housing insecurity also have lifelong health implications, as poverty-induced stress damages both the mental and physical health of individuals and their communities. Considering HHM students are disproportionately Black and Latino, the San Francisco housing crisis reinforces a preexisting cycle of racialized economic disparity, wherein racial minorities continue to face more barriers than their White and Asian counterparts.
Health and housing crises in cities come at a high price to taxpayers, as growing vulnerable populations demand greater access to welfare. Though sometimes assisted by federal grants, city and state governments often take on the burden of public assistance. Efforts to increase spending on welfare programs are often met with considerable resistance in Congress, as conservative and free-market ideology is prominent among Republican legislators. Meanwhile, in 2021, 41 billion USD of federal tax funds were approved for projects collectively aimed at “demonstrating democratic values abroad.” The USAID website is chock-full of typical yet deeply hypocritical photos: A group of schoolgirls from the West Bank laughing in their classroom; a smiling Afghani woman feeding her child. All the while, within USAID’s own borders, HHM children are deprived of proper nutrition and education due to their families’ economic conditions.
This is not to say that the U.S. sending aid abroad is inherently wrong. It is true that individuals and societies around the world suffer from housing insecurity, inadequate education, and chronic health problems. One could notice that globally, many are considerably worse off than even the most disadvantaged HHM children in America.
One could also argue that the U.S., being an economic and political superpower, has a responsibility to assist those in poorer nations, especially those in which the U.S. has directly benefited from their economic and political disparity. I am not trying to dispute these arguments, but rather I believe that by not addressing development issues in its own country, the U.S. is depriving its own citizens of basic necessities. By ignoring underdevelopment in the so-called “developed world” we pose a threat to our own societies while projecting hypocrisy. The U.S. can and should continue to send aid abroad. At the same time, however, its leaders should stop neglecting problems within their borders.
Until the Western world realizes that it is not the model society it makes itself out to be, problems of housing insecurity, education, and poverty will continue to devastate its citizens and societies. Only then will the United States be able to justly “advance prosperity” abroad.
Edited by Gabriela McGuinty
Sage is a third-year student at McGill pursuing a double major in International Development and Political Science. As a writer for Catalyst, she is particularly interested in global supply chains and womens’ education.