Sunday, December 8, 2013

Postcard from America

My next-door neighbour tells me you had a terrible storm earlier last week that nearly washed you all into the North Sea. I’m sorry about that. 

Our farmhouse, which has so far survived 343 winters, simply shrugged and asked for another log to be put onto its roaring fires. Or so our housesitter told me, when I phoned her to see if it had blown away. 

“Yes, it was a bit windy this morning, but it was worse in Newcastle”. 

Worse, I understand, was a completely flooded Quayside. 

Well, if makes you feel any better, it’s been raining here as well. A real deluge battered homes, washed out drive-through hamburger joints, drenched the health food stores. 

It is strange to see Southern California in the rain. People don’t really have umbrellas or rain coats. They don’t even have gutters on the side of their houses – there’s no demand. They just drive their cars closer to the supermarkets and run for it in their white jeans and teeshirts.

I’ve never seen television weather forecasters so excited. It must be such a cushy job, reporting on the Los Angeles weather. They probably use the same scripts day after day, their only task being to invent new ways of saying the word hot. Then finally a little patch of cloud floats over their map and they really can show what they’re made of, hysterically predicting mud slides and flooded freeways. 

In fact, the storm lasted about an hour and a half. Then, rather apologetically, the sun poked its head through the clouds and reclaimed the sky. That’s it, I was told: the last rain of 2013. 

It’s a bit like what over here they are now calling The Great Recession. Looking at the packed shopping malls, you can hardly believe this country has been through it at all. The restaurants are full; the rich are still wealthy. For them, the principal result of the economic downturn has been to make consumer goods cheaper and the stock market soar. 

Yet dip beneath the drying surface, and the effects are everywhere. Driving right across LA yesterday, I saw the massive contrast between the haves and the have-nots. Desperate poverty just a block away from breathtaking opulence. It’s a divergence that has visibly grown since I last worked here back in 2005. 

As our plane touched down at LAX on Wednesday, President Obama was making a speech in Washington about the vast gap between rich and poor. Since 1979, which was the year Obama left school, the American economy has doubled in size, but now the top 10% of people now have half the nation's income. Obama said the average CEO makes 273 times the income of the average worker. 

And while the rich have generally managed to weather the Great Recession, the number of households where at least one parent is unemployed has increased by 33 percent. Nearly 10 percent of all married families are now living below the poverty line and receiving food stamps. 

Sounds familiar? As in Britain, America is nowhere near the end of its economic storm. The biggest effect of unemployment, aside from school-leavers, has been on the middle-classes, particularly people over the age of 45 who have tended to lose their jobs first, partly because of their relatively higher wages, and partly because of the general bias against older workers. 

Early retirement, they call it. At 50? 

But although the effects of the recession in Britain have been just as brutal, and nowhere felt more than in the North East, there is one area in which we can count ourselves very fortunate for being British. 

The biggest fear about unemployment for Americans, aside from the loss of income and homes, is the loss of health insurance, which is paid for by employers as standard, and covers entire families. As the jobless rate rises, so does the number of people without any proper healthcare. This is a country of two nations: those who can afford to get ill and those who can’t. 

In Britain, we should be grateful for one thing that’s protecting us against the current economic downpour more than any Californian sunshine ever could: our wonderful National Health Service.

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