The American Third World That No One Is Talking About


Right beneath our noses, there are American citizens living in desolate poverty, in conditions that mirror the shanty-towns of Central America. These people are not living in America's big cities or suburbs, but in unincorporated areas that have been all but forgotten by public officials and the public itself.

In these places, many along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, there is no running water or electricity, no drainage or sewage treatment. Children in these communities often have difficulty attending school, as the land is prone to flooding, making travel difficult.

It's as if American citizens are living in Honduras or Nicaragua rather than the ultimate land of opportunity. But there they are, largely left to live this way whether due to public officials' ignorance or general indifference.

As Parker Abt writes in The Washington Post, hundreds of thousands of Americans — that's right, citizens — live in such conditions on a day-to-day basis, and few outside of these areas are even aware of their living situation.

In the “colonias” of the American Southwest, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have lived without running water for decades (not to mention the lack of electricity, sewage treatment and drainage). Homes are built without regard for safety codes or regulations. The result is structures that look like shacks, hastily built by residents with little money and even less construction expertise.

Some colonia houses have dirt floors and fit a full family in a single room. Many families in the colonias live on less than $250 a week. I visited one colonia this past summer where a family showed me the blackened shell of their house, which burned to the ground after firefighters took 30 minutes to arrive at the scene.

That kind of life hardly sounds like what we imagine the United States of America to be. Yet here we are, with citizens living without many of the amenities that hundreds of millions take for granted every day.

How are these "colonias" defined? The federal government considers a community without access to clean water to be a colonia. Indeed, many of these communities are plagued by dirty water, some containing arsenic, a highly toxic carcinogen.

“The county didn’t tell the residents there was arsenic in the water and they kept drinking it,” said Lionel Lopez, director of the South Texas Colonia Initiative. “Lots of people there get cancer early.”

When the government offers services to these communities, they are often inadequate. Some reforms have been enacted, but they do not address the vast array of fixes that are truly needed. When scares of a cholera outbreak spread, the government will act to provide these areas aid, but as public pressure declines over time, those resources are often withdrawn, the Post reports.

Solutions are needed for this kind of problem. While we often think about people living in foreign countries without access to standard amenities made possible by free market development, people live in similar ways right here as fellow Americans.

Though we often lose sight of our fellow man in the sea of faces that is a nation of 320+ million people, we cannot afford to do so. Democratic nations are particularly prone to concentrate power in the hands of the state, as they feel no common bond to those outside of their own circle.

The bulwark against the growth of the state is to freely associate with each other, and come together in our own communities to solve problems independent of government action if necessary. Indeed, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America :

I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.

What is really needed in such places is water treatment, drainage, and electricity. The free market can offer these services to those who need them, with both commercial and charitable associations and organizations coming to the aid of those in need. If missionary organizations can travel to Africa to drill wells and establish schools and facilitate local economic growth, why can that not be done without our own borders, for our fellow citizens?

It will take associations of citizens coming together to seriously address the issues plaguing these areas. Governments can do only so much, and often have little incentive to truly fix issues. However, citizens who care about their neighbor, and organizations that exist to lift people out of poverty and to promote their welfare are the entities that can really make progress for these people.

As Tocqueville concludes:

In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.