What does it mean to be disenfranchised? What does disenfranchisement have to do with Hopelessness?
The most common use of the term disenfranchised has been associated with the right to vote. People who are disenfranchised are not permitted to participate in their own governance. More generally, it could refer to the loss or denial of any of the civil liberties to which a free people are entitled, under the law. Typically, when we say that someone is disenfranchised we are talking about people from whom something has been taken away.
We have chosen to expand the term to include people who have essentially disenfranchised themselves. These are individuals who no longer believe that what they do, think, or say matters to their community, their nation, or society. In this case, disenfranchisement is a voluntary abdication of one’s responsibility to participate in one’s own governance. This type of disenfranchisement flows from hopelessness.
Human beings experience hopelessness when they no longer believe they have control over their own destiny or over the outcomes in their lives. Literally tens of millions of people, in this great nation of ours, have lost hope. They no longer believe that the American people, as a whole, care about them. They no longer believe that anyone is interested in listening to their complaints of woe let alone take action to address those complaints. They no longer believe in the “American Dream.”
It is easy for the rest of us to shout out in pious righteousness that these people need to do something for themselves but, literally, these people do not see anything they can do. That’s what it means to be powerless. Hopelessness and powerlessness are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.
We tell them to get a job, but there are no jobs for them that will enable them to support their families. They can work somewhere for minimum wage but no employer is going to give them a sufficient number of hours per week that would obligate the employer to offer benefits. They can make a better living on Welfare. The argument that Welfare offers no advancement opportunities is meaningless to people who cannot envision something better. We must be able to envision if we are to believe.
When faced with serious injury or illness of a family member, the disenfranchised know that the American people are prepared to let them suffer. They know that every other developed nation in the world, apart from “the land of the free and the brave,” has addressed this issue of access to healthcare. Americans, however, steadfastly refuse to provide healthcare to all Americans. Even when the President of the United States has pushed through healthcare reform legislation in the form of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), however imperfect, the opposition attacks it relentlessly. The message that the disenfranchised hear, loudly and clearly, is that the majority of Americans “do not want us to have quality medical care for our families nor are they willing to pay for that care.”
Mainstream Americans are frustrated that so many people have become dependent on the government for welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. We cry out, “What more do you want?” We do not understand why these people express resentment rather than gratitude.
When, in the face of our staggering national debt, all the disenfranchised hear from those in power are proposals to cut food stamps, welfare benefits, or other entitlement programs; why would they feel anything other than resentment?
What Americans need to wake up to is the idea that this reality with which we are confronted is a consequence of decisions we have made over the last seventy years. We created this monster called welfare. It was intended to make sure that poor mothers could care for their children but the reality is that it succeeded only in trapping huge populations of Americans in a reality that is little more than second-class citizenship.
It used to be that even the poorest of the poor would see an education as a ticket out of poverty and as a stepping stone to the American Dream. In most urban communities, the disenfranchised no longer believe in education as a ticket to anywhere other than free day care. What they know is that huge percentages of their children are failing in a school system that is also second class. When we offer voucher programs to help families put their children in better schools we are sending a subtle but powerful message that America has given up on urban public schools.
The fact is that the only parents that take advantage of vouchers are people who still cling to hope and some vestige of the American Dream. The other significant fact is that unless the parents who opt to take advantage of vouchers are also willing to accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children and ferociously encourage their sons and daughters to work hard at school these kids will be no more successful in their new schools than they were in their old ones. Many “charter schools” and other schools that admit “voucher children” to their classrooms are finding this out as they see their school’s declining scores on state competency exams.
So, let’s think about this for a moment. We have an expanding population of poor Americans who:
• Are third- or fourth-generation beneficiaries of welfare
• Cannot gain access to anything more than the minimal level of healthcare for their children and little or no healthcare for themselves,
• Who cannot find jobs that pay better than minimum wage and that offers enough hours to qualify for benefits,
• Who see their children fall so far behind in school that “failure” seems inevitable, and
• Who hear elected officials and policy makers demand that we cut entitlement programs rather than increase taxes paid by the wealthy and the middle class.
Why in the world would we expect these men and women to believe in an American Dream that is nothing more than an illusion for them and an empty promise for their children?
Welfare and other programs that teach people to be dependent rather than independent and interdependent are a cancer that is eating away the heart and soul of our nation.
We must acknowledge, as we move further into the Twenty-first Century, that the policies that got us into this mess are incapable of getting us out. We desperately need new ideas and new solutions. We need to think exponentially and challenge all of our assumptions about the way our society provides for the poor, takes care of the sick, and educates our children.
How much longer can we expect working men and women of our nation to continue to carry the burden of a burgeoning population of poor and disenfranchised people on one end of the productivity continuum, and population of retirees that is growing at an unprecedented rate on the other? What happens to our status as the leader of the free world when our economy buckles under the oppressive weight of the retired and the dispossessed?
In a few weeks, I will be introducing my latest book entitled, Re-inventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of the Twenty-First Century. It is a book that offers a strategic action plan to address major components of the dilemma in which we find ourselves. In this book, I suggest that our systems of education, both public and private, offer the best hope for attacking the problems we face as a society and for bringing the disenfranchised back into a game in which their contributions are desperately needed.
My book Radical Surgery: Reconstructing the American Health Care System, published in 2002, already offers a solution for providing universal healthcare and prescription drugs at a price that we can afford; and, in a way that relies on free market forces, not government, to drive quality, cost, and accountability.
Many people have branded Radical Surgery, sight unseen, as just another proposal for socialized medicine. If they would set aside their prejudices and open the book they would learn that Radical Surgery rejects socialized medicine and offers another alternative. It is an alternative, however, that requires that we open our minds to a whole new way of thinking about healthcare.
Implementation of the very specific strategies offered in these two books, Re-Inventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream and Radical Surgery, will provide a realistic opportunity to re-engage the disengaged members of our community. The consequence of seeing this population continue to grow will be nothing short of apocalyptic, which is what my novel, Light and Transient Causes, has been written to illustrate.