America offers the prospect of a “better life” for many people around the world who seek to immigrate. But this enormous demand can make it challenging to set immigration laws that serve the best interests of those who live here, as well as those wishing to do so. This one example illustrates that America is a nation of contradictions.
These contradictions often encourage polarization and divisiveness across social and political issues. But to effect positive change demands a step back to address the root cause of much of the discord.
It all starts with a me-first attitude that permeates American culture. This culture is grounded in activities that exploit our economic foundation.
Our per capita income ranks amongst the highest in the world. The amount of wealth in the country is tremendous, estimated to be over $100 trillion owned by all households. The federal government’s net worth is also over $100 trillion.
Yet, there are numerous seeming contradictions that are illogical despite such massive wealth and the opportunities that it provides. Here are three such enigmas. 
Hunger and obesity: Over 40 percent of the adult population in the United States is obese, as measured by body mass index (BMI). Even with all the flaws in the BMI, a simple eye test of news broadcasts of Americans from 50 years ago compared to what we see today tell the story. Obesity carries with it numerous other health risks, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer. This places an enormous strain on our health care system, with the cost of disease treatment associated with obesity far exceeding the cost of prevention. 
Yet, hunger and food insecurity also run rampant in America. Around 10 percent of households cannot fulfill their nutritional needs at some point during the year. The Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides support to alleviate food insecurity. Children are particularly vulnerable, with them accounting for over 40 percent of SNAP participants. Many of them receive their only substantive meals (breakfast and lunch) during school. A hungry child cannot learn as effectively as one who is well-fed. The abundance of food that leads to obesity, concurring with a lack of food that leads to food insecurity creates a contradiction of resources.
Unemployment and jobs: The unemployment rate has been under 4 percent for several months, suggesting a tight labor market. Yet, over 5 million people are unable to find work. The challenge is the mismatch of the skills of the workforce with the needs in the labor market.
Demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills are overwhelming. Yet, the education system cannot produce enough people to meet the needs in industry and government. Many who have STEM skills are immigrants, creating a turbulent pipeline for such talent. Moreover, STEM skills needed in military and security-sensitive positions must be U.S. citizens, making it even more challenging to fill.
Health care and health: The United States ranks first in the world in health care science and technology innovation. The U.S. also ranks third to last in fiscal sustainability. The hospitals and medical centers in the nation represent an impressive list of organizations. Yet, many people are unable to gain access to health care services, relying on emergency room visits when a health crisis emerges.
Our nation spends over $4 trillion for health care services, ranking No. 1 in the world for per capita expenditures. Yet, life expectancy ranks a dismal 54th in the world. Many do not have access to care, with an alarming disparity of available care across the population. 
In a nation that offers so much, there are many facets that we are woefully lacking and inadequate. 
What has contributed to these contradictions? Viable candidates include an ever-widening wealth gapgridlock in Congress and attempts to appease special interests. 
The common thread of all these factors is the me-first attitude that pervades our society. Our nation can be aptly renamed the “Me First States of America.”
If we are to reach a better today and brighter tomorrow, change must begin at the grassroots of society. Our elected officials must set the tone for such change.
With control of the House and Senate still being resolved from the midterm election, the outcome of a split government is increasingly likely. Will this foster more destructive gridlock or constructive compromise? Will this continue to fuel the cadre of contradictions? 
We, as a nation, can do better. In fact, we must do better. 
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.
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