We didn’t like the US

Posted on January 20th, 2015 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

I am just back from spending 5 weeks in the US.

In a few issues’ time we’ll start our USA Diary series – covering the best technical and other sights we saw.

Our previous travel diaries (based on trips to the UK and Germany) have been popular, and we had high expectations of what we would see in the US.

And we certainly saw some fantastic things – Hawaii’s amazing volcanoes, the quite unbelievably good Smithsonian Air and Space museums in Washington DC, and the extraordinarily historic place at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina where the Wright Brothers first flew a powered aircraft.

I also very much enjoyed the Simeon car museum in Philadelphia and the Tampa Bay car museum in Florida.

But I have to say that, overall, this family of two adults and a 10 year old did not enjoy the trip.

Why not? Well, there are two ways of looking at that.

You could say that our expectations were unreasonable – or you could say that we found the US very unlike its portrayed image.

The most major dislike that we developed was for its social inequity. In the US, black and Hispanic people have a level of wealth that is not just less than whites – it’s catastrophically less.

Some figures I’ve since found indicate that the median wealth of white households is 13 times as much as black households, and 10 times as much as Hispanic households. Not double, or triple – 10 and 13 times!

In fact, the quoted median net worth (that’s total household assets minus household debts) of black households in the US is just US$11,000. That figure includes house, car – everything. That number has also declined by a staggering 43 per cent in the last 6 years.

So what?

Well to our eyes, that social disenfranchisement and impoverishment was blindingly obvious in the beggars and the homeless in every place we went. It was obvious in the pay rates (US$8 an hour for an adult working in a fast food place); it was obvious in the housing; in the mad and the mumbling unfortunates that we saw on every bus and city train we took.

Now of course in our five weeks we couldn’t travel to every square kilometre of the US, but we did go to Honolulu, Chicago, Buffalo, Niagara, New York, Washington DC, Raleigh and Orlando. In most of these cities, we took public transport to outlying centres; and we often took long-distance trains between major centres. There was plenty of opportunity to observe the passing landscape – some places were worse than others, but none were good.

There are 95 million black and Hispanic people in the US – about 30 per cent of the population. So the statistic that the median wealth of these households is under $US13,700 doesn’t apply to just a tiny minority of people – it applies to a hugely significant number of people. And all this in one of the richest countries in the world…

No country is perfect, and Australia certainly isn’t. But I can say with certainty that based on what we personally observed, and based on the reputable statistics on wealth that are freely available, Australia is vastly more socially equitable.

We found it very hard to turn a blind eye to such unjustness – as most tourists and many US residents apparently do.