When Democratic primary candidates were asked last Thursday about the economic policy platforms of their campaigns in light of the fact that Trump’s economy has yielded record-setting stock market performances, historically low unemployment rates, and significant GDP numbers, Andrew Yang’s answer interestingly sounded more like a medical doctor diagnosing America’s collectively failing health than an economist wonking out on growth policies.
The effect of his answer, though, was really to underscore the link between the health conditions of individual Americans and their economic well-being.
Here’s what he said:
“GDP and corporate profits are at record highs in America today. Also at record highs: depression, financial insecurity, student loan debt, even suicides and drug overdoses. It has gotten so bad that our life expectancy as a country has declined for three straight years because suicide rates and drug overdoses have overtaken vehicle deaths for the first time in American history. The fact is this employment rate and GDP have very little relationship with people’s lived experience on the ground.”
So, Yang’s insightful and, in the context of this debate, unique response to the question doubled as a critique both of Trump’s economic policies and, in some sense, of his health care policies. His response demystified the illusion that we are in the midst of the healthiest economy in U.S. history, as Trump often claims, and also underscored once again the perhaps unprecedented cruelty he has brought to the White House and exercised abundantly.
Trump just doesn’t care about people, and the indexes we use to measure the performance of our economy—such as the GDP, The Dow Jones Industrial Average, and unemployment rates—don’t actually measure the welfare and well-being of the American people.
Thus, while Trump touts his economy, he neglects the people living in it and experiencing its effects.
Yang makes this cruel neglect apparent, denying Trump the ability to mask his utter lack concern for people behind economic numbers unrelated to “people’s lived experience on the ground.”
Yang makes us reflect on the degree to which people’s emotional, mental, and physical health are, in fact, economic issues. He asks us, implicitly, to evaluate the performance or health of an economy based on how well it cultivates the emotional, mental, and physical health of the American people.
Does our economy cultivate conditions that affirm and support life? Or, does it cultivate conditions that are hostile and alien to human life, pushing people to suicide and overdose?
Yang’s response pushes us to re-think the basic instruments we use to measure economic performance.
And he asks us to re-define what constitutes and economic issue.
Consider healthcare. Last year a federal judge in Texas threatened millions of Americans’ health care, declaring the entirety of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. The Trump administration effectively supported the suit, doing nothing to support or defend the federal law. As of yet, despite promises, Texas legislators have done nothing to develop a replacement should the Affordable Care Act disappear in Texas.
His policies on health care need to be included when we evaluate how well Trump has managed the economy.
Earlier this month, Trump cut food stamps to some 700,000 people. Is this policy consistent with cultivating an economy that affirms and supports human life? Not at all.
A study last spring demonstrated that raising the minimum wage plays a role in abating the very rising suicide rates Yang invoked in the debate.
According to researcher Alex Gertner of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Our study found that when a state increased its minimum wage, the suicide rate increased less than in other states and other times.”
Gertner added, “It’s possible that increasing the minimum wage improves life satisfaction, increases access to healthcare and decreases mental illness, which all lead to fewer suicide deaths.”
Consider that an astounding percentage of those working in the wealthiest nation on earth live on the edge. One third of all workers make less than $12 per hour and 42% make less than $15 per hour. A third of the population has no savings, and another third has less than a $1,000 in savings, leaving little to no wiggle room for any unexpected expense, such as medical expense or routine car repair. Fourteen percent of Americans live in poverty, as reported by Forbes, a publication far from being a liberal rag. These are stressful conditions.
Thus, it is not surprising to learn that, according to the study, many positive outcomes are associated with a higher minimum wage, “including higher odds of graduating high school and lower odds of having unmet medical needs.”
Studies show as well that unemployment and other forms of economic distress, such as having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, a common condition Yang identified in Trump’s “record-breaking” economy, greatly impact people’s emotional, mental, and physical health.
What Yang suggests to us is that in addition to formulating and implementing a health care policy that enables all to access quality care, we also need to create an economy that promotes the well-being of people.
And we need to evaluate the health of our economy in terms of how well it serves the health of people.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.