At Thanksgiving, think of the poor

At the time of the first Thanksgiving, poverty rates were extremely high and would stay that way for centuries after.

By Sandeep Gopalan

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Published: Wed 27 Nov 2019, 5:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 27 Nov 2019, 7:54 PM

Bread and Butter - the two Thanksgiving turkeys weighing 45 and 47 lbs respectively - have received their ritualistic pardon from the President meaning they are safe from the knife and are free to live. Other turkeys are less fortunate as Americans start preparing to carve up their own big birds for the traditional meal this Thursday. Amidst all the gloom and doom in the Trump era, should we be thankful like Bread and Butter or gloomy like the 46 million nameless turkeys estimated to be killed this week?
First a quick recap. After enduring desperate conditions, the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 joined with their Native American allies in November 1621 to celebrate their first successful corn harvest. As chronicled by Edward Winslow at that time: "their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they . bestowed on our Governor. and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want ." Imagine that scene for a moment - about a 150 people, the majority of whom were Native-American, feasting with people with whom they had nothing in common but a shared humanity.
Today's Thanksgiving likely bears little resemblance to the Pilgrims' event 398 years ago and is typically an occasion for eating turkey, yam, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. And supinely watching football, whilst pondering Black Friday's shopping frenzy with trepidation.
Despite the relentless negativity in the air, amidst impeachments and trade wars, Thanksgiving is an occasion for recognition and gratitude for the fact that human beings the world over are enjoying probably the best conditions in recorded history. In the 1600s, life expectancy in England was under 40 years, whereas it is about 80 years today in the US and UK. In India, the life expectancy in the late 1800s was a mere 25 years and has risen to 68 years today.
At the time of the first Thanksgiving, poverty rates were extremely high and would stay that way for centuries after. For instance, in 1800, an estimated 81 per cent of the world's population were experiencing poverty as measured by a $1.90 per day standard. As recently as 1947, India's poverty rate was 70 per cent, whereas in 1990, about 750 million Chinese were living in poverty. Today, India's poverty rate is about 21 per cent whereas China's is about 3 per cent.
Returning to the United States, whilst the overwhelming feeling is of great accomplishment and the need to be thankful, Thanksgiving 2019 is also a time to reflect on the progress that is still desperately needed. It is a shameful fact that despite being such a prosperous country, 11.8 per cent of Americans experience poverty. That's a whopping 38 million Americans. About one in six children experience poverty. And inequality is extremely racialised - the median household income for African-Americans was $41,361, whereas whites earned $70,642. The top fifth of households took over half of all income.
And whilst Thanksgiving celebrates a fleeting harmony between Native Americans and Whites, it is important to note that Native Americans experience the highest rate of poverty at 25.4 per cent, closely followed by African-Americans at 20.8 per cent. These numbers need to change if everyone has to be truly a part of the Thanksgiving spirit.
In the end, although there is controversy over the legacy of Thanksgiving, it is an opportunity to recognise what's possible through human cooperation and understanding. If Squanto, the English-speaking Native American, had not transferred his knowledge about growing corn and fishing to the Pilgrims, the United States may never have existed. As the governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, wrote at the time, he was "a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation." We need to harness that spirit. Otherwise, there's no turkey and stuffing for too many Americans.
-Sandeep Gopalan is the Vice Chancellor of Piedmont International University in North Carolina, US

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