A New Perspective: The Economics of Recent Social and Environmental Concerns in the United States

Author: Jaden Welch-Jani
Glenbrook South High School


The United States is at a critical point in its history. Communities and societies are falling apart. Relationships across America are fraught at best and downright violent at worst. Poor education and infrastructure are impeding progress and hastening the nation’s economic backslide. Meanwhile, a deadly virus has put lives on hold and the looming specter of climate change has made its presence known across the globe. Vast systemic changes are not only important, they are necessary for survival. The Brookings Institution put forward the idea of “recoupling,” pointing out that the economic future of the nation is inextricably linked to its societal future. Both are important to the future of the U.S. as a great power. However, when implementing economic policies, the potential societal or environmental impacts of said policies are often ignored. The Brookings study, “How COVID-19 changed the world: G-7 evidence on a recalibrated relationship between market, state, and society,” points out that, in theory, the result of economic progress should be better quality of life for all citizens of a nation, but policymakers ignore social success in favor of purely economic gain. Using this Brookings study as a basis for analysis, this paper looks in depth at the challenges the U.S. faces with the inward and outward solidarity of its citizens, economic agency, and the environment, both as they have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic and from more ingrained, long-standing issues with United States policy. It then goes further, explicitly laying out the economic consequences for continued decline in these crucial factors of social prosperity. Having strong solidarity among a nation’s citizens, whether directed inwardly towards those in their own community or country or outwardly towards those outside of their nation is important for policy implementation. Providing agency, freedom of life choice, and opportunities for advancement to citizens allows for economic growth; failing to do this and to provide the necessary public goods for success can inhibit development and progress. Environmental deterioration not only harms future generations through the loss of land and culture, it will also be economically devastating. There is no easy way to solve the many problems the United States is encountering. This paper explores the challenges the U.S. faces and explains how continued inaction is damaging. These issues require innovative, manifold solutions which will involve valuing long-term benefit over individualistic short-term gains.

Inward Solidarity

Inward solidarity is defined by the Brookings Institution Recoupling Index as “the need for social belonging and embeddedness” as it is directed “to one’s national, religious, ethnic, racial, or class groups” (Miranda & Snower, 2021, p.4). Inward solidarity can undoubtedly be harnessed for good, but at the same time it can contribute to nationalism and tribalism. This is particularly dangerous in an event like a global pandemic, when cooperation among social groups and nations is exceedingly important. Inward solidarity can be estimated in a variety of ways using different metrics. The World Happiness Report’s metric of social support, which is based on citizens’ perceptions of the care they receive from their community, paints a picture of how inward solidarity has changed throughout the pandemic and may continue to change in the future. How does the United States shape up relative to its G7 peers according to this metric? The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) reports that, in 2020, despite being a world leader in GDP per capita, the U.S. was exactly in the middle of the group for social support. 2021 was the same story, though, interestingly, the U.S. saw a moderate increase in the number. This seems to indicate that the pandemic was a centripetal force which brought social groups together on a relative basis.

Based solely upon the social support metric, one could conclude that the U.S. has fairly strong (though not excellent) inward solidarity. However, a brief glance at the daily headlines in the United States would seem to rebut this analysis. The January 6th, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, for example, portrayed a deeply unsatisfied and distrustful mob attempting to overturn the result of an election decided by their fellow citizens (Barry et al., 2021). It revealed a fundamental division among Americans seemingly in direct contradiction to the feeling of “social belonging and embeddedness” which inward solidarity refers to. Thus, perhaps it is better to look at other indicators to measure inward solidarity. Inclusiveness is also a key factor in inward solidarity as it pertains to the nation as a whole, and the U.S. sees its numbers trail far behind all of its G7 counterparts in inclusiveness metrics. According to the Social Progress Imperative, an international data collection not-for-profit, the United States ranks 27th globally in inclusiveness with its score of 65.04/100. This metric factors in equality in positions of political power with regards to gender, social group, and socioeconomic status, and discrimination and violence against minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Shockingly, the United States, with its claims of “liberty and justice for all” ranks 103th globally for its performance regarding violence and discrimination against minorities (Social Progress Imperative, 2021).

The inclusiveness metric shows a very different side to inward solidarity in the United States. So why is there such a disconnect between Americans’ opinions of the social support they receive and the reality of life in the U.S.? The nature of the way inward solidarity is measured may have something to do with it. Having unity among “religious, ethnic, racial, or class groups” doesn’t necessarily correspond to strong national unity. The question then becomes whether these two ideas are inherently incompatible in a massive multinational state like the U.S. It is true that many of the nations with the highest marks for social support (e.g., Finland and Denmark) have a high degree of ethnic and religious homogeneity (Nokkentved, n.d.; SDSN, 2021; World Population Review, 2021a). At the same time, Switzerland, ranked third in social support in 2021, is a multilingual state with a variety of regional dialects and distinct ethnicities that still manages to foster a strong national identity (Helbling & Stojanović, 2011). This indicates that while the diversity of the U.S. may make it more difficult to encourage national unity, it is still quite possible to have an inclusive and supportive national climate.

A lack of national identity can have a harmful impact from an economic perspective as well. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has manifested itself in a high rate of vaccine hesitancy. An April 2020 study found that only 56.9% of U.S. adults planned to get vaccinated if a vaccine became available, compared to similar studies showing the same number at 79% in the United Kingdom, 77.3% in Italy, 76% in France, and 70% in Germany (Sallam, 2021). Americans reported much higher levels of mistrust of the vaccine itself, as well as general antivaccine beliefs (Bloomstone et al., 2020). In addition, the high levels of vaccine hesitancy again point to the lack of national solidarity in the United States. For young, low-risk individuals, getting vaccinated serves largely to help high-risk citizens by curbing the spread of the virus; it also boosts the nation’s economy as a whole as it allows businesses to reopen safely with fewer restrictions (Yan, 2021). A nation with higher inward solidarity among its citizens will be more likely to have high vaccination rates. The U.S., on the other hand, has the lowest vaccination rate of any G7 nation and one of the lowest among the G20, as of summer 2021, which could imperil its ability to recover and lead to yet another COVID surge (Oxford Martin Programme, 2021).

Nor will the end of the pandemic result in an end to the U.S.’ struggles with national unity. If Americans don’t feel a sense of connection with and responsibility toward their fellow citizens, they will be more resistant to making sacrifices for the greater good. Paying taxes provides a good example of this. While the United States ranks fourth-to-last in tax rates among OECD countries (almost 10 percentage points below OECD average), and taxes are used in large part for services which benefit Americans in their day-to-day lives, American citizens are disproportionately resistant to paying taxes (Mann, 2010; Tax Policy Center, 2020). Free enterprise and tax resistance have been a part of American history since the nation’s inception, but this cannot account for all of today’s anti-tax movements (Mercantini, 2015). The U.S.’ strong culture of individualism (the nation is often ranked the most individualistic country in the world) is a significant contributor to this and is harmful to the nation’s future cohesion and economic performance (Marsh, 2021). From 2011-2013, the IRS found that the federal tax gap (i.e., the disconnect between taxes owed versus taxes paid) was nearly $400 billion, accounting for about 2% of the nation’s GDP at the time (U.S. Internal Revenue Service, 2021). However, the issue extends beyond just the collection of taxes. The U.S. also has one of the most unequal tax systems among the OECD nations, particularly after recent corporate tax cuts (Chatzky, 2019). A recent book found that the richest 400 U.S. households pay a total tax rate of only 23%, while the bottom half of households pay a rate of 24% (Picchi, 2019). This inequity results in the U.S. having the fourth highest wealth gap among OECD nations (Chatzky, 2019). From 1980-2013, the top 0.1% of earners saw their average real income increase by 236%, while the median U.S. household actually saw their income decline between 1989 and 2013 (Stiglitz, 2015). The U.S.’ Gini coefficient is significantly higher than any other G7 nation, indicating wealth is much more concentrated in the hands of the rich (World Population Review, 2021b). All of these factors serve to harm both the economy and inward solidarity among U.S. citizens.

This money which is not collected from taxes is not being spent by governments on roads, security, infrastructure, education, and many other public goods crucial to a strong, developed economy. Among the OECD, the United States has the eighth lowest overall government spending as a percentage (38.1%), which is also the lowest number among G7 nations (OECD, 2020). In recent times, this unwillingness to spend taxpayer money for the greater good has led to long, drawn-out political battles over healthcare, education, and infrastructure bills. A 2021 study by the American Society for Civil Engineers rated U.S. infrastructure at a C-, well below its peers in the developed world. By 2040, the U.S. will most likely rank second to last in terms of spending on infrastructure among the G20 nations. Meanwhile, investments in infrastructure may increase GDP by as much as three times their value (McBride & Siriparapu, 2021). A U.S. House Committee on the Budget (2019) report found if infrastructure conditions are not improved by 2025, $3.9 trillion in GDP and 2.5 million jobs could be lost. Education is another key public resource that governments provide. The U.S. also ranks around the OECD average in terms of educational attainment and test scores (OECD Better Life Index, 2021). The boost in human capital provided by a strong education system has significant economic benefits that cannot be overlooked (Grant, 2017). If the United States wants to remain one of the world’s strongest economies, it must improve on these numbers, but it will be unable to do this if its citizens do not feel unity with their fellow Americans.

Outward Solidarity

The concept of outward solidarity (the feeling of connection with or responsibility toward those outside one’s own nation or social group) is similarly important. This is true not only in the time of COVID-19 when globally coordinated efforts are necessary, but also for the future of the world as nations must work together to tackle issues like climate change and international conflict. Miranda and Snower (2021) found that while Canada, France, Germany, and the U.K. saw significant declines in outward solidarity, and Italy and Japan saw increases, the U.S.’ outward solidarity score remained about the same from 2019 to 2020. Additionally, the U.S. had the second highest overall score among the G7 nations, after Canada. In this number, another disconnect is seen between public opinion and the actual realities of U.S. policy. Around two-thirds of the U.S. population is in favor of the U.S. being involved on a global scale and providing aid to developing nations, but as of 2019 the U.S. dedicated only 0.2% of its budget to foreign aid, one of the lowest numbers among wealthy nations (Ingram, 2019). According to the Recoupling Index, a relatively high “percentage of [Americans] believe that the city or area where they live is a good place for minority groups,” contradicting the U.S.’ poor rankings in inclusiveness shown in the previous section (Miranda & Snower, 2021). Meanwhile, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 150% from 2019 to 2020 and police killings of Black Americans continued to shock the nation (Meier, 2020; Yam, 2021). So public opinion doesn’t really reflect reality. 

The U.S. struggles with inclusivity and minority rights, but what effect does this have on the nation’s ability to cooperate outwardly with other nations and be a part of the global community? During COVID, the U.S.’ outward solidarity changed in a variety of ways. One initial reaction seen in the United States was that of blaming and lashing out against other nations. For example, people began to refer to the pandemic as the “China Virus” as a way of placing the blame on another nation instead of putting aside differences and cooperating to curb the spread of the virus. Additionally, the arrival of the coronavirus coincided with an increase in anti-Asian violence (Vazquez, 2020). U.S.-China tensions defined the global response to the pandemic and put countries in a difficult position of trying to appease and not anger both nations. Around the globe, the U.S.’ failure to adequately combat the pandemic and coordinate its response with other nations are seen as a potential harbinger of the nation’s fall from global supremacy (Ba et al., 2020). Anti-China tensions were not the only indicator of a decline in outward solidarity in the United States. In the early months of 2021, the U.S. faced global criticism for not sharing its stockpile of vaccines with poorer nations, as the pandemic continued to rage. This failure threatened to fuel the development of more COVID variants in low-income nations with high population densities (González and Miller, 2021). Eventually, the U.S. did pledge to share its surplus doses, but only to try to counter similar programs of nations like China and Russia and improve its global relations (Keith, 2021). The U.S.’ response to the pandemic, while not all bad, may have greatly harmed its outward solidarity and global standing.

The future of outward solidarity in the United States is complex. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was seen as a clear sign of anti-globalist sentiment in the U.S (Ip, 2020). Under the Trump administration, the United States took steps towards a more nationalistic identity, which most likely caused Americans to feel a decrease in outward solidarity. For example, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords (ratified by 189 other nations) in 2017, undoing a global step to prevent climate change. This action by the U.S. represented a lack of trust in the agreement (McGrath, 2020). By pulling out of an agreement like this, the U.S., a global leader, gave other nations the green light to not take responsibility and not meet the outlined climate goals, and this will have a devastating impact for years to come (Leahy, 2021). Trump also jettisoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signaling a more confrontational policy toward international trade and creating friction with its allies in the region (Mauldin, 2021). President Biden promised to reverse some of Trump’s policies, but he faces resistance from a nationalist movement of the American public (Ip, 2020). Biden has signaled the U.S. wants to improve its outward solidarity by re-entering the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, and around the world there is hope that Biden will revive U.S. leadership (Huiyao, 2021). It remains to be seen whether Joe Biden, described as the “last, best hope for globalists” will be able to save American solidarity with the rest of the globe, but it is clear that U.S. engagement and cooperation is needed for accomplishments to occur on a global scale (Babones, 2020). Maintaining high outward solidarity will remain crucially important for the United States in the coming years in order to face future challenges and maintain the nation’s global standing.

Agency and Institutions

Agency, or a person’s ability to achieve advancement in society, is vital to a growing economy. A society with strong agency has the capability to match more people with good, innovative jobs that will add value to the economy and facilitate progress. The Brookings Institution’s agency index factors in life expectancy, confidence in empowering institutions, freedom of life choice, and vulnerable employment. By that measure, the United States ranks 6th out of the G7 countries, though it saw a 3.0% increase from 2019 to 2020. This indicates that the U.S. was rebounding, but the increase in agency is at least in part a result of the fact that the U.S.’ numbers were very low to begin with. So, Americans generally do not feel as though they can get ahead to the same extent that citizens in other G7 nations do (Miranda & Snower, 2021). How does the U.S. measure up to other nations across the globe in other agency metrics? One way of estimating agency is to look at employment data. Interestingly, 2020 employment data (in terms of the percentage of population aged 15-24 working) corresponds closely to the agency index itself among the G7. Italy is lowest, France and the U.S. are fairly close in second/third to last, and Canada, Germany, and the U.K. rank near the top (OECD, 2021). Employment data is clearly correlated to agency, because if fewer people are employed or have opportunities for employment, they will feel less empowered and less able take control of their lives. Further, the U.S. has been found to have particularly low opportunity for economic advancement. Stanford economist Raj Chetty finds that those born into households in the bottom fifth of the U.S. in terms of income have only a 7.5% chance to advance to the top fifth of the income distribution, compared to 9.0% in the United Kingdom and 13.5% in Canada. This number declines further for those born in neighborhoods with particularly high concentrations of low-income residents (Chetty, 2015).

Access to quality education, overall health of the population, and many other factors affect the potential citizens will be able to reach in their nation as well. Having strong human capital (the knowledge and experience that people gain over time from their job and education) is one of the key drivers of economic growth. Improving human capital not only makes the nation more efficient, it also makes citizens feel a stronger sense of agency and freedom of life choice, as more job pathways for advancement are available to them (World Bank, 2020). COVID-19 had a detrimental impact on human capital in a number of ways. First, children lost significant time in school, and the decline in quality of education due to the lockdown will have a lasting impact. More than one billion children were out of school for at least some time during the pandemic. This loss of learning could account for a $10 trillion decrease in future earnings. As COVID overwhelmed health care systems, particularly in developing nations, access to quality medical services decreased. People dealing with illnesses were unable to receive proper care, so they ended up losing valuable time. Overall life expectancy decreased as well. The pandemic also exacerbated domestic violence, particularly against women, a phenomenon which, in addition to causing significant trauma to those who experience it, continues to worsen inequalities in human capital. Generally, the time not spent working and gaining job skills due to lockdowns or lay-offs will take a lasting toll on human capital and agency in the United States and across the globe (World Bank, 2021). Pre-pandemic numbers help demonstrate how the U.S. stacks up in human capital. According to the Human Capital Index, the next generation of workers will attain only 71% of their potential future earnings in the United States in 2018 (World Bank, 2018). In 2020 (before the impacts of COVID-19 were accounted for), this number was down to 70% (World Bank, 2020). The U.S. ranked 35th out of the 174 nations accounted for in the HCI, lower than any other G7 nation. This indicates that workers in the U.S. are less likely to reach their full potential relative to other highly developed democracies. 

The Human Development Index (HDI) is closely related to agency and the concept of human capital; here too the US fares poorly. The HDI measures health, knowledge, and standard of living to demonstrate a nation’s ability to achieve progress and advancement for its citizens (WHO, 2021). The overall HDI declined for the first time since data collection began during COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, however, in 2019, the U.S. fared much better in the HDI compared to the Human Capital Index. It ranks 17th overall and 4th out of the G7 nations. However, the U.S.’ position is 7 places lower than its global rank in GDP per capita. Further, the United States sees its position fall 11 places further down if inequality in income, life expectancy, and education are factored in. The top 10% controls 30.5% of wealth, placing the U.S. second to only Chile among nations in the top 50 in HDI. The U.S. also ranks 46th in the Gender Inequality Index, closer to nations like Bahrain and Kazakhstan than its highly-developed peers (Conceição, 2020). Its progress towards gender equality has essentially stopped, with major issues arising from a lack of opportunities for economic and political participation, as well as a continuing wage and income gap (World Economic Forum, 2020). All of this inequity in human development is devastating to agency in the U.S. It means significant portions of the population are less likely to become well-educated, experienced, and healthy members of the labor force, and thus less able to contribute to the overall well-being of the economy and society.

Institutions are crucial to sustaining agency and freedom of life choice in a nation. The strength and equality of governments, justice systems, and laws have been shown to have significant effects on economic performance in nations. Institutions in a nation have the capability to establish, secure, and regulate industries to varying degrees, depending on their quality, efficacy, and power. A study by economists Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian (2003) found a clear, direct relationship between institutional quality and GDP per capita which was not seen with a variety of other indicators. They proposed the “primacy of institutions in economic development,” directly tying agency and empowerment as it is received from powerful institutions in a nation to that country’s economic performance. Americans specifically have shockingly low confidence in many of the nation’s most powerful institutions. As of 2021, only 12% of Americans have high confidence in Congress, compared to 51% who have very little or none. Only 32% of Americans have good confidence in public schools, and 38% feel a high degree of confidence in the presidency. Similarly low numbers have been seen over the past 5-10 years, showing a clear lack of faith in institutions in the nation (Gallup, 2021). 

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index (2021) finds that while compared to the world as a whole, the U.S.’ institutions are fairly strong, it lags behind its regional counterparts and other highly developed nations. It ranks 27th out of 139 countries surveyed globally, 20th out of the 31 nations in its EU, EFTA, and North American regional group, and 27th out of 46 nations under the high-income designation. U.S. citizens feel low confidence in their government, and the nation struggles with Open Government and Absence of Corruption, both of which declined from 2020-2021. Furthermore, the justice system sees severe discrimination and bias. The U.S. civil justice system ranks 122/139 globally in absence of discrimination, and 126th in access and affordability. The U.S. also has one of the least impartial criminal justice systems, well below the global average. Numerous studies show bias against Black Americans and other minorities in policing (Balko, 2020). For example, 1 in 23 Black adults are on parole or probation, compared to 1 in 55 adults in America as a whole, and Black males receive, on average, 19.1% longer sentences than white males who commit the same crime in similar situations (Horowitz & Utada, 2018; U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2017). When the justice system works only for some and denies many fair treatment, people lose confidence in the institution. This is dangerous because the strength of society depends on people trusting and buying into institutions. The justice system has the potential to increase agency, but when it works in a biased and discriminatory manner, it takes away agency from certain groups. Having empowering institutions which work to help people get jobs and have healthy and productive lives provides a boost to both agency and the economy as a whole. 

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability is key to maintaining economic growth in the long run. As a major economy and a large center of population, the United States consistently ranks among the nations with the highest total greenhouse gas emissions (Social Progress Imperative, 2021). More telling, however, is the U.S.’ performance on more comprehensive environmental metrics relative to other highly developed nations. In 2019, the United States emitted 16.06 tons of CO2 per capita, more than any other G7 nation, and third most among G20 nations (Ritchie & Roser, 2021). Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, which measures nations’ relative completion of their sustainability goals, places the United States second-to-last among the nations of the global west. Point-by-point, the U.S. ranks dead last in the western group in Environmental Health and Waste Management, third-to-last in Sanitation and Drinking Water, and in the bottom third for almost all other indicators (de Sherbinin et al., 2020). Past data demonstrates that this is not just a Trump-era trend, either. According to the 2014 EPI report, the U.S. would have ranked third-to-last in that same group (de Sherbinin et al., 2014).

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a variety of impacts on the environment across the globe. For example, lockdown orders significantly reduced the use of greenhouse gas emitting transportation, and outbreaks have forced supply-chain shutdowns that have put large, polluting factories out of commission either for a short time, or for good. In the United States, production of greenhouse gas nitrogen dioxide fell over 25%, while overall air pollution in New York City fell by 50% compared to the 2019 mark. Water and noise pollution have similarly fallen as major polluters have been limited by the pandemic. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has brought about negative environmental effects, particularly related to waste, from the increased production of medical equipment like masks and gloves to the shutdown of recycling programs that were crucial to helping reduce waste from trash deposited in landfills (Islam & Rume, 2020). 

It remains to be seen whether the trends initiated by the pandemic will have any lasting, long-term effect or if they simply reflect a short-term disruption. At first glance it may not seem as though the pandemic would cause long-term environmental change. However, a Global Workplace Analytics (2021) survey shows that, particularly as the pandemic continues to drag on, workers who have adapted to the remote work environment will be increasingly likely to continue this practice. They estimate that 25-30% of workers will still work digitally for at least half of the week by the end of 2021, up from approximately 3.6% pre-pandemic. The subsequent reduction in commuter traffic (and therefore pollution) could have an effect comparable to eliminating the entirety of commuter traffic from the state of New York. At the same time, however, COVID caused electricity use to increase across the entirety of the United States due to people working from home, anywhere from 12.7% in New York to 3.9% in Florida (Nikolewski, 2021). As 40% of energy production is used for electricity generation and a significant percentage of this energy production still uses non-renewable, fossil fuel-emitting resources, this has the potential to offset some of the pandemic’s positives (EPA, n.d.a). Also, fear of spreading the virus has led to a decline in the number of those riding public transit, with 75% of transit riders decreasing their usage of such services according to a study in Transport Policy (Bouzaghrane et al., 2021). Mass transit is an important way to reduce emissions, and the pandemic has disrupted its regular usage. A hybrid environment in which workers stay home for part of the time and go in to work for the other part of the time could be even worse, because it will maintain the higher energy usage at home while also increasing emissions from commuting and workplace energy consumption.

The pandemic will leave a complex environmental future, but regardless of the outcome it is clear that we cannot delay taking strong action to prevent climate change. Overwhelming evidence shows that continued inaction will soon have devastating consequences (Stern & Oreskes, 2019). Thus the question remains, why does the United States continue to lag behind its counterparts in its pursuit of environmental sustainability and what does this mean from an economic perspective? Why do we sacrifice future gain for short-lived happiness? Economist Paul Krugman (2020) refers to a “cult of selfishness” in American society which is endangering our future economic well-being. This is rooted in the widespread belief that the effects of climate change are far off in the future, so sacrifices do not have to be made in the present. So far, most Americans have not had to grapple with severe consequences of the climate crisis, though climate change-induced disasters are ever on the rise (Kluger, 2018). 

Another impediment to U.S. environmental sustainability efforts is that policymakers are uninformed of the wide-ranging potential economic costs of climate change. A London School of Economics (2019) study points out that due to the unprecedented nature of this event in human history, potential impacts are often understated or not fully understood. Economic changes are often referred to in GDP or dollar value, which makes it difficult to quantify effects like ecosystem destruction, habitat loss, and loss of human lives. It is impossible to know what the exact magnitude of the damage will be, but statistics paint an increasingly clear picture of where the world is headed. 

For example, conservative estimates place the number of coastal inhabitants who may be affected by flooding at anywhere from 35 to 125 million, and one billion people may live at elevations less than 10 meters above sea level by 2050. Given current warming patterns, the sea level will most likely rise 2 meters by 2100, making massive infrastructure investments critical (deFries et al., 2019). In the Netherlands, for example, where more than half of the population lives below sea level, $5 billion worth of flood prevention infrastructure has already been built out of necessity, and even more will have to be built in the future. American cities like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Charleston, South Carolina have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure as well in response to damaging floods and storms (Morrison, 2019). As major hubs of transportation and trade are often located in coastal locations, damage from flooding or major weather incidents will be incredibly disruptive to economies. One-third of the world’s population will most likely experience severe heat waves with some regularity if temperatures rise by 2°C, according to the most conservative estimates. Some effects are already here: the United States has seen the number of heatwaves triple nationally in recent decades, and from 1996-2016, they accounted for 10,000 U.S. deaths (Gawthrop et al., 2020). A heat wave in Europe in 2003 accounted for 30,000 deaths, loss of crops and livestock, and the shutdown of nuclear power plants providing key electricity (Britannica, n.d.). More frequent and severe future heat waves will cause food scarcity and widespread economic disruption.

 The United States needs to take immediate action on climate change in order to avoid significant economic consequences. The U.S. continues to trail the rest of the world in its environmental sustainability goals. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have had a moderate impact on the environment globally, it will not be significant enough to stem the tide of climate change. It is important for policymakers and citizens to realize the economic issues that will arise if no action is taken to prepare for the coming problems.


The United States’ social and economic troubles are far from over. There is no easy solution to the variety of issues that the U.S. faces. How can the U.S. foster national unity and bring its citizens together, while avoiding nationalism and restoring citizens’ feelings of solidarity with the rest of the world? What is the best way to empower all Americans and deal with entrenched institutional problems? Is it too late to reverse the trends of climate change and stave off the economic disaster that could arise? The U.S. must now confront these crucial questions and work to reverse the global decline it has faced in recent years. It remains to be seen whether Americans will be willing to make necessary sacrifices and change their mindsets for the greater good. In the meantime, fundamental changes must be made on the national level, whether in education, public service, or environmental policy.

There is no silver bullet, but strong evidence suggests changes to the education system are a key component of building a better future. The impacts of improving education are wide-ranging. First, providing programs that would allow for stronger and more equitable schools would undoubtedly improve agency, particularly the human capital aspect of it. Better, more equal, education makes many more life paths available to each individual (Vilorio, 2016). A 2017 report by Mark Dynarski of Brookings finds that the U.S.’ education system continues to hold back economic growth and future potential, and limits opportunities for advancement for lower-income Americans. Ramping up investment in education would boost the economy from the most fundamental level, and help the U.S. become a center for innovation and growth once again. While short-term educational investment (e.g., one-time loans to struggling schools) tends to only replace the spending that would have otherwise been undertaken, long-term investment (e.g., changes to a state’s education finance system) tends to increase years of schooling and lead to more successful adults. Effecting these long-term changes will require considerable spending, but this spending can yield substantial economic benefit (Dynarski, 2017). An increase in spending of $3,400 total from kindergarten through 8th was shown to translate into an additional $5,350 in increased earnings. Not even factoring in any other non-earnings-based gains, the benefit-cost ratio of educational spending exceeds 1.5; this demonstrates the potential for a huge economic impact if spending is more widely distributed (Lafortune et al., 2018). Ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities can help build national connectedness. As people branch out and interact with new people through school, inward solidarity could improve. Education and solidarity have been linked, as better educated individuals are more willing to make contributions to society, such as paying taxes to support less-fortunate Americans (“Educated voters’ leftward shift is surprisingly old and international,” 2021).

On a deeper level, the U.S. should invest in education which helps students learn how to think critically. In an education system that still emphasizes the memorization and test scores, the importance of critical thinking can easily be overlooked. However, having upcoming generations learn how to be aware of the world around them and make educated, pragmatic decisions could positively influence the future of United States economically and societally. The agency benefits are clear. People will be able to analyze their lives and careers to maximize both their own satisfaction and their contribution to the United States as a whole (Towler, 2014). It also has significant potential to reinvigorate the spirit of national unity and counter the current divisions in the United States. Instead of believing and propagating all of the divisive, reactionary rhetoric and unverified information circling the internet, Americans who are taught to think critically may reject the first narrative presented to them and look at both sides of an issue. It will promote positive dialogue and be a first step towards a more united America. A study for the World Inequality Database points out those with lower levels of education tend toward the far right of the political spectrum, while those who are able to attain a college degree are more centrist. Education, and the critical thinking skills that come with it, would lead to a population less likely to blindly follow the agenda of one major party, and more likely to form their own opinions and find common ground with other Americans (Gethin et al., 2021). At the same time, education can boost outward solidarity by teaching people about how their lives relate to and depend upon others around the world. More people might even become leaders and innovators thinking about solutions to the world’s biggest problems, such as climate change.

While education has the potential to alleviate many of the recent struggles the United States has endured, it is a long-term solution that only affects the youngest cohort of Americans. One of the U.S.’ most imminent challenges is bringing together Americans from all walks of life to re-establish national solidarity. This requires something that binds all Americans and encourages them to meet new people outside of their social group. One way to do this would be to inspire Americans to participate in public service in some capacity during their lifetimes. Mandating this would be highly controversial and likely generate backlash. However, incentivizing service in some way (e.g., through student loan forgiveness, payment/cash incentives, tax benefits, or school/work related programs) could be highly effective, given that for private sector workers incentives provide a significant boost to performance (Stolovich, 2010). This would have wide-ranging impacts on the national level. First, it provides more workers who can complete infrastructure projects, serve as educators, perform government-sponsored healthcare services, and fill many other jobs which are vital to the economy but often critically understaffed. During the coronavirus pandemic, when many have lost their jobs and are feeling disconnected from society, this could be a crucial opportunity. It also sets up workers for future success, possibly through offering them education benefits, or at the very least by giving them valuable work experience. From an economic perspective, money spent on national service companies like AmeriCorps may be as much as doubled in terms of societal benefit. Given the multitudinous advantages, increasing spending for public service programs and incentivizing participation in those programs would be highly advisable. Such a program has the potential to provide unity and opportunity to American citizens and a valuable workforce for a nation struggling with infrastructure, environmental, and educational issues (Bateman & Ross, 2020).

Both education and public service can be used for the benefit of the environment as well. Education will generate more people aware of the issue of climate change and the magnitude of the response needed to change its course, as well as more people qualified to innovate and engineer environmentally friendly solutions. Public service can be used to build more green and efficient infrastructure. There are many other solutions to help combat the effects of climate change that require only minor sacrifices, but they will require an open mindset from Americans who can take such proposed changes as affronts on their personal freedom. The ideal situation would see Americans making these life choices themselves without any inducement. However, as the crisis continues to escalate, it may become necessary for lawmakers to make the tough choice of legislating various aspects of life that are contributing to climate change, such as energy consumption. Hopefully, this will be eased by the widening availability of alternative sources of energy and fuel. At the same time, however, the EPA has proposed economic incentives for environmentally friendly companies, as well as limits on pollution across industries (EPA, n.d.b). 

This study has used the Brookings Institution Recoupling index to analyze and understand America’s current position. If the U.S. hopes to continue in its role as a global superpower, it must address both its societal and economic struggles. If the nation’s solidarity continues to plummet, it will see its populace unwilling to come together to tackle the issues of the future, and it will be unable to unite the rest of the world to solve issues like the coronavirus or climate change. If the U.S. does not empower its citizens and provide them with agency and opportunities for advancement, it will continue to fall behind and not make economic progress. Ignoring problems such as climate change has already placed the country in an unfortunate position where environmental degradation will harm future generations. Failure to make serious gains in education are also at the root of problems in advancement. The U.S. has the distinct potential to make extensive changes for the better right now. Delaying, however, will cause both America and Americans to suffer.


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About the author

Jaden Welch-Jani

Jaden is a junior at Glenbrook South High School, located near Chicago. He is particularly interested in the intersection between economics and international relations. Outside of school, Jaden is a club leader for Model United Nations, Academic Bowl, and Science Olympiad, and he enjoys Congressional Debate, Math Team, volunteer tutoring, and playing basketball.