A homeless camp in Austin last month, covered in a rare snow. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)
The Perseverance rover, fresh off its flawless landing, was on a mission, scouring the surface of Mars for evidence of ancient life, relaying crystal-clear images of an alien world, proving that when it comes to space exploration, no one does it better than the United States.
And 139 million miles away, back on Earth, 38-year-old Chris Prescott was still washing dishes, bathing and cooking with bottled water.
It had been two weeks since an Arctic blast swooped into Texas, knocked out the power grid and busted Prescott’s pipes just as Perseverance was touching down. For many in his impoverished Houston neighborhood — only a short drive from the Johnson Space Center — the water coming out of their taps was as dark and dingy as the Martian landscape.
“People were already struggling,” said Prescott, who gets by on the money he makes doing occasional yard work, having lost his full-time job to the pandemic. “Now this has put them at the bottom of the barrel.”
Compared with its developed-world peers, America has always been a study in contrasts, a paradox of exceptional achievement and jaw-dropping deprivation. Rarely have the disparities been rendered as vividly as in recent weeks and months.
Historic breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology coexist intimately — and uneasily — alongside monumental failures of infrastructure, public health and equitable access to basic human needs.
America can put a rover on Mars, but it can’t keep the lights on and water running in the city that birthed the modern space program. It can develop vaccines, in record time, to combat a world-altering illness, but suffers one of the developed world’s highest death rates due to lack of prevention and care. It spins out endless entertainment to keep millions preoccupied during lockdown — and keep tech shares riding high on Wall Street — but leaves kids disconnected from the access they need to do their schoolwork.
“What kind of state are we living in, what kind of society are we living in when kids have to educate themselves on the curb of a Taco Bell?” said Brian Smoot, a Salinas, Calif., chiropractor who invited neighborhood students to use his WiFi after two girls were photographed outside a nearby location of the fast-food chain last year, their Chromebooks wobbling on their laps as they tried to connect to high-speed Internet.
And this in a city just a short drive from the extraordinary wealth of Silicon Valley, a global symbol of American innovation, where Apple, Facebook and Google have gleaming campuses — with record stock prices to match.
The disparities reflect a multitude of factors, experts say, but primarily stem from a few big ones: Compared with other well-to-do nations, the United States has tended to prioritize private wealth over public resources, individualism over equity and the shiny new thing over the dull but necessary task of maintaining its infrastructure, much of which is fast becoming a 20th century relic.
“Let’s face it, we don’t have ribbon cuttings when we replace a pipe. Only when there’s a brand new bridge,” said Joseph Kane, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That’s the American fascination with bigger and better.”
Those choices can pay dividends, as they do when the U.S. leads the world in health-care innovation or electrifies the automobile. They also have consequences.
The nation’s infrastructure — the airports, broadband networks, transit systems, utility lines, ports and sewers that keep society humming — is in a perilous state from decades of underinvestment that has transcended both Republican and Democratic administrations. Perhaps even more important than the lack of cash, Kane said, is the absence of a plan.
“The Eisenhower administration is really the time we really had a goal or a vision for our infrastructure,” he said. “Now we’re in a fundamentally different era with a more unpredictable and extreme climate, more inequality, a lack of accessibility. And we’re still operating as if it’s the 1950s.”
All that neglect is showing: The American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this month gave the country a C-minus for the overall quality of its infrastructure.
That middling mark is actually up slightly from the group’s last report card, four years ago, when the grade was an ignominious D-plus. But it still reflects the decrepitude of a nation where a water main breaks every two minutes, and where nearly half of public roads are in either poor or mediocre condition.
The Biden administration has said that reimagining infrastructure — with increased funding to match — will be a central focus of its legislative agenda this year. In theory, it should be a relatively easy sell: The issue is one of the few that enjoys bipartisan backing.
Yet the same was true during the Trump administration, when the notion of “infrastructure week” became a running gag and the self-described “builder president” ultimately failed to sign legislation to get workers digging and backhoes rumbling.
President Biden has said he will put racial equity at the heart of his efforts on infrastructure, an attempt to remedy a system that has long provided superior public resources to some and inferior ones to others, with skin color often making the difference.
The federal level is not the only place where lawmakers will be wrestling with the country’s gaping disparities this year. In 38 states and Puerto Rico, legislators will be weighing whether to spend more to bring broadband Internet to poor and rural communities.
Such measures have been repeatedly delayed in the past because of concerns over the cost. But in California, at least, legislation to help narrow the digital divide has been moving forward. That’s in part because of the outcry over the viral photo of the girls doing their homework outside an East Salinas Taco Bell.
“We know that broadband access is a necessity of everyday life and it’s a moral imperative that we find solutions now,” said Luis Alejo, a county supervisor who represents the area and who has been advocating for the legislation.
Salinas may be geographically close to Silicon Valley, but in other respects it’s a world away.
The city was made famous by John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” an account of tenant farmers who escaped the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and set out west for California. The “Okies,” as they were called, found exploitation and discrimination rather than relief.
Today, largely Latino field workers harvest lettuce and strawberries, earning low pay and enjoying few protections. The city has the highest child poverty rate in the state, and the lack of basic Internet access has kept many from attending virtual school during the pandemic.
Tanya Harris’s daughter is among them. Harris, a single mother of three, was laid off from her retail cashier job during the pandemic. She was unemployed for nine months, and with the family bouncing around among shelters, rat-infested motels and friends’ couches, reliable Internet was rare. As a result, her daughter wasn’t able to graduate from high school.
“She was really depressed about [it],” Harris said. “She’s a great student and it was her senior year. I just don’t get it: We have filthy rich people all around.”
Harris recently got a job at another clothing store, again earning minimum wage.
And weeks ago, she was able to get stable, low-income housing in a nearby county.
Her daughter is back online and now has another chance to finish school. But the problem persists.
“I can see from my window students working outside a Starbucks right now for the fast WiFi,” said Carissa Purnell, director of the Alisal Family Resource Center, which helps the area’s vulnerable families. “There are thousands of kids still in this situation.”
And that’s just in the Salinas area. Statewide, an estimated 1.5 million students — more than half of them Black, Latino or Native American — lack adequate Internet access, according to a study co-published by Common Sense, which advocates for children and families, and the Boston Consulting Group. Nationwide, the number is as high as 16 million.
In most other wealthy countries, health care is considered a basic human right; a view reflected in the universal healthcare systems in place across Europe, Canada and Australia. In the United States, it is a commodity, a fact that Britons took to Twitter to remark upon recently when they noticed — with considerable alarm — all of the medication advertisements aired during Oprah Winfrey’s interview of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. “If these medicine ads are what it’s like to not have an NHS [National Healthcare Service] I never want to experience that,” one viewer tweeted.
As with the digital divide, the pandemic has brought disparities in health care into sharp relief.
“We can land a rover on Mars. We can beat a pandemic,” Biden recently proclaimed.
Yet the evidence has shown otherwise.
Even as American scientists, laboratories and pharmaceutical companies working at breakneck pace have helped blaze a path to effective vaccines, the country has consistently lagged behind other developed nations in the more elementary tasks of coronavirus testing and prevention.
Those failings have contributed to a tragic toll: The United States accounts for just four percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of worldwide coronavirus deaths. A disproportionate share are poor or people of color.
“Covid-19 laid bare how systematic inequities exist in this country,” said Rabih Torbay, president and CEO of Bethesda-based Project Hope, an international medical relief organization that provides assistance primarily in war-torn and disaster-ravaged nations, but also increasingly works in the United States.
“Where you have the best hospitals and where you don’t, where you have the best health care and where you don’t,” Torbay said.
Sometimes they exist side by side.
Lark Jones lives in one of the nation’s wealthiest metropolitan regions — Washington, D.C. — and about 15 miles from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases labs. That’s where scientists led the development of the spike protein technology that is now at work in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
The announcement late last year of successful vaccine development — a triumphant moment for American science — came around the same time that Jones, and just about everyone she knew, was falling seriously ill to covid-19.
Her 72-year-old mother was especially hard hit: After 2½ weeks in intensive care and weeks more of rehabilitation therapy, she survived. But the disease left her with permanent kidney failure, dependent on dialysis for the rest of her life.
Jones’s own case was milder, but it still left her gasping for breath. Even before she fell ill, the 40-year-old had already fallen through the cracks of American health care.
A resident of Northeast D.C., Jones lost her job as a home health aide in 2017 and, with it, her job-provided insurance. She found new work, in the form of two part-time jobs for minimum wage. But part-time work — even when it amounts to 17-hour workdays with just one day off a week — doesn’t necessarily provide health insurance. And Jones, who requires regular treatment and medication for diabetes and high blood pressure, can’t afford to buy her own.
In her two part-time jobs — as a youth counselor and as a program assistant at a D.C. homeless shelter — she is considered an essential worker. She’s one of the people who continued to go to work, even as others stayed home and as friends and family began to fall ill. The essential worker designation ultimately made her eligible for a vaccine; this month she received her second dose.
But the irony of it all feels outrageous when she thinks about it. There was never any hazard pay, nor any protection should she get sick.
“To care for the community and still not be offered health care, I think that’s just crazy,” Jones said.
Health-care experts say it’s also, simply, American. In 2019, about 28.9 million non-elderly people in the United States were, like Jones, uninsured, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Roughly 45 percent of non-elderly adults are also considered “inadequately insured”—meaning that even those who have insurance still struggle to afford the care they need. The CEO of GoFundMe in 2019 said that a third of the donations raised through the charitable giving site help people struggling to pay their medical bills.
‘People have no water’
Back in Houston, the inadequacies of America’s basic support systems were compounding and colliding. A failure to properly weatherize power generation systems after Texas’s last major cold snap, in 2011, had led to a power crisis, which led to a water crisis. And that, in turn, was leading to fears of a health crisis made worse by an inability to take basic precautions to ward off illness.
“People have no water,” said Marcel McClinton, a 19-year-old community activist. “How can they wash their hands?”
The water problems were concentrated in neighborhoods of eastern Houston that already struggled with high rates of illness. Also in the city’s east: the Johnson Space Center — home base for decades of extraterrestrial triumphs, though not the most recent one — where workers lacking electricity at home huddled for warmth last month even as their colleagues at mission control in California celebrated.
A native Houstonian, McClinton had moved away, but he returned to join with fellow organizers to distribute bottled water, food and other basic supplies in recent weeks. What he found was enormous need that predates the cold front — and will long outlast it. “We can do this work for a year and our lines will be just as long,” he said.
Prescott, the 38-year-old, was among those standing in them, picking up supplies for himself and his family as the power continued to sputter and the faucets spit out contaminated water. He soon found himself on the other side of those handoffs, volunteering to help his neighbors in the city’s Fifth Ward. He had it bad, but not as bad as many of the people he knew.
In the America of 2021, there was always someone who had it worse.
“I try to look out for other people,” Prescott said. “There might be a time when I get in that situation and need someone to help me.”
Kate Rabinowitz contributed to this report.