When I traveled to Athens, Greece, last month for a summit of the International Network of Street Papers, I was not sure what I expected to see.
Amid all the networking with delegates from 35 nations and the street paper best practices and success stories, I thought maybe I’d see some hardcore social dysfunction.
An estimated four in 10 Greeks live below the poverty line. Austerity measures since 2008 have left one in three Greeks at risk of homelessness. Athens counts 20,000 homeless people in a city of 660,000.
So, I was thinking I’d find beggars in the streets or maybe tents popping up in various green spaces. The kind of stuff we see here. I didn’t.
Nowhere did I see evidence of social breakdown like we have right here in one of the wealthiest cities in America. As bad as the Greek economy is, they have nothing on us in terms of sheer visible misery.
Instead, there is ample evidence that, amid all the financial strain, people in Greece are still taking care of each other.
Not so much here. As alarming as some of the Greek statistics can be, some of our own right here in the U.S. are worse.
In Athens, for example, one in 10 people relies on food banks to meet daily nutrition requirements. In the United States, that number has risen to one in seven.
In 2013, the Greek Mental Health Research Institute found that 12.3 percent of people there show signs of clinical depression.
Our own National Institute of Health (NIH) put the U.S. rate at 6.6 percent in 2014, but did not count homeless people, military personnel, people in long-term institutional care facilities and the incarcerated.
In short, anyone with good reason to be depressed in the U.S. was omitted from the NIH statistic.
Here in Washington state, where our mental health care system ranked 47th in the nation, nearly 21 percent of adults suffer from some form of mental illness. We can see the evidence of this on our streets.
Suicide rates due to unemployment offer an especially grim point of comparison.
In Greece, the suicide rate among working-age men, aged 20 to the Greek retirement age of 50, has skyrocketed by more than 50 percent since austerity. Among this hardest hit group, the suicide rate has risen to 8.81 per 100,000.
In the U.S., the suicide rate among working-age men, aged 45 to 64, is more than double that, at 19.2 per 100,000.
And while the poverty rate in Greece approaches 40 percent, that number is more than 27 percent among Black people in the United States. Among Black children under 6 years old, the U.S. poverty rate is a shocking 45.8 percent.
Times like these bring out the worst in some people.
In Greece, for example, the fascist Golden Dawn party attracted 9.4 percent of the vote in 2014, making it the third largest Greek party represented in the European Parliament.
During one evening I spent in Athen’s anarchist quarter, heavily armed police patrolled the streets with riot gear and assault rifles.
They were there to prevent an expected violent clash between the fascists and anarchists.
But the Greek political swing to hard right pales in comparison to our own.
Current political polling shows Hilary Clinton running just four points ahead of Republican Donald Trump, a candidate who has placed White working-class anger against immigrants and minorities at the very center of his campaign.
I’d take the fringe fascism of Golden Dawn over the mainstream fascism of the new Republican Party any day.
Europeans in general don’t know what to make of the U.S.
While Europeans are seeing attacks on their safety net, driven in large part by racist responses to the refugee crisis, our rates of homelessness dwarf theirs.
And our own human crisis rivals that of Europe’s most troubled economy.