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.

17 Responses to 'We didn’t like the US'

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  1. Willy Wong said,

    on January 20th, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Wanna see inequality in the US? DC is a good start, but where I live Baltimore is another city brings it out. We have city blocks where it’s mostly quiet affluent white communities, and next door to places you really shouldn’t be in, and get out fast!
    A car is definitely required to hop to next area to another. It’s kinda sad since this city is teeming with rich US history, and our lovely marble steps! Every rowhouse has one, once well kept, now faded.

  2. Ben Powell said,

    on January 22nd, 2015 at 6:19 am

    It’s curious to note that of those 95 million people, the ones who actually have homes (whether they own them or not, and whether they have employment or otherwise) are actually being housed and fed. There may be an income gap making them look poor but historically their conditions are better than most except for recent times. Before you blast me for that read on…

    With the level of waste society pumps out, there is no technical reason that the lives of these people and countless others can be brought up to the standard that we in Australia and New Zealand enjoy. The reasons that they can’t have large tv’s, higher quality food and new clothes are purely economic and have nothing to do with our manufacturing capabilities…

  3. Ford Man said,

    on January 23rd, 2015 at 7:43 am

    I was shocked at the poverty just a few miles along Pennsylvania Ave from the White House.
    Museums in Washington and NY are extraordinary. It is a land of extremes which our leaders here seem determined to emulate. I’ve just finished Thomas Pikettys “Capital..” which quantifies the economic inequality you observed. Piketty also explains how the political environment can either foster or curb gross inequality.

  4. Roger Johnson said,

    on January 25th, 2015 at 1:04 am

    America IS the land of opportunity! Unfortunately, there are certain people who will not avail themselves of these opportunities. It’s still true that, if you get an education and work hard, you can be successful and amass a reasonable amount of wealth. It’s also true that you are free to fail.

    Looking thru the internet, I see that the Aborigines in your country only have 60% of the wealth of whites. Also, immigrants, seeking a better life coming from Asia, are intercepted and sent to camps on Christmas Island pending disposition!

    Those who live in glass houses, etc!

  5. joe said,

    on January 25th, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    A decent education is not available to all people in you’re country,and alot of further studies does not teach people the necessary skills to transition into the work force. On the job training is a far better way of learn the skills you would need yet the over educated seem to think it is the answer to the worlds woes.

  6. Ford Man said,

    on January 26th, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    Roger, great to hear the alternative view.
    However I think George Carlin was closer to the truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsL6mKxtOlQ

    Joe, yes a degree is no longer a sure path to a job. Are you advocating for more apprenticeships?

  7. Roger Johnson said,

    on January 26th, 2015 at 11:52 pm

    Yes…Mr Carlin makes some good points but I don’t think it’s restricted to America. Joe also has some good points. The problem is that the idiots we elected have exported millions of middle class manufacturing jobs overseas. Ergo, there are few places left where one can get an apprenticeship. These same idiots damn near destroyed our economy with the passage of bad laws over the last several decades.

  8. roy simon said,

    on January 27th, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Interesting observations Julian and thank you for sharing.

    I totally agree that the extreme poverty and wealth all-wrapped-into-one society that hits you between the eyes as soon as you step off the plane is as confronting as it is tragic. But don’t be fooled into thinking we here in Australia don’t have the exact same issues here, albeit on a smaller, more discreet scale.
    Australia is looking down the barrel of emulating The U.S, and it can be seen writ large for all who are awake to see in our current federal government’s policies. IMO the only thing that stands in the way is a more active and educated populace here at home.

  9. Edward said,

    on January 29th, 2015 at 9:58 am

    I believe the erosion of welfare systems and user pays models for basic services (US, Europe and Aus is heading this way) is creating the disparity. Some people will never work whether it’s because of health, mental, racial or social reasons and not providing for them creates the volatile disillusioned under class which ends up costing society more in the long run. Some smart dude once said something about the measure of a good society is how well it looks after it’s under privileged.

  10. Henry said,

    on January 29th, 2015 at 11:22 am

    True freedom is being just as free to fail as you are free to succeed. We (the US) have programs in place that are used (and often abused) by people of all races in lower economic classes to survive with minimal effort.

    On a primal level this makes perfect sense. Survive and conserve personal resources. It’s why lions chase the limping gazelle, it’s why sharks evolved to sense blood from great distances, it’s why early humans settled near sources of water.

    Considering the vast quantities of outreach programs, both governmental and otherwise, that are designed to combat this perceived inequality, the numbers remain the same. This isn’t apparent just in the US, but worldwide. Proportions may differ between cultures, but it’s far more complex than “this race earns X while that race earns Y”. Have a look at the caste system in India for a clear example of why race is not the deciding factor. They’re all genetically Indians, yet they maintain a very distinct socioeconomic status that follows bloodlines through history. One has to want change before it can be thrust upon them by the guilt-ridden upper classes. Some people are content with a simple life, some aren’t.

    I personally have lived on both sides of the have/have-not fence, and I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that it’s personal motivation that makes the difference, not the color of ones skin. Attributing abstract numbers to race, is itself, racism.

  11. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 29th, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. A comparison of health/welfare statistics for Australia and the US make for interesting reading:

    Life expectancy:
    US: 79.8 years
    Australia: 83.0 years

    Infant mortality rate:
    US: 5.2
    Australia: 4.5

    GDP per capita income ($US):
    US $53,001
    Australia: 45,138

    Inequality of income (Gini index: higher = worse):
    US: 40.8
    Australia: 30.5

    Homicide rate:
    US: 4.7
    Australia: 1.1

    Education index:
    US: 0.828
    Australia: 0.994

    So despite being richer per capita than Australia, the US scores worse on major social indicators.

    It’s actually quite hard to find indicators where the US is in front of Australia – childhood immunisation rates is one.

  12. Beau Roberts said,

    on January 29th, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    “The problem is that the idiots we elected have exported millions of middle class manufacturing jobs overseas.” “These same idiots damn near destroyed our economy with the passage of bad laws over the last several decades.”

    The Blame Game….
    It is very convenient to blame others for the social and economic ills in a society. The poor, the rich, the conservatives, the liberals, politicians, etc etc, ad infinitum. But of course, to those who are not weak thinkers, the real problem is as clear as fine crystal. YOU are the problem. Yes YOU, you reading the computer screen right now. Politicians are not idiots. They are representatives of the people. Representatives who, over time follow the general sentiment, the overarching will of the society they live in and observe. As the values of societies change, hawk eyed individuals will naturally rise to take advantage of these values for personal gain. They will sell the public what they want to hear, regardless of whether it is virtuous for society or not.

    You wanted these ‘bad laws’ to be passed, you elected the ‘idiots’. It is incumbent upon you to make the right choices with regards to your political support, to educate yourself about the political process, to reject the siren song of ‘its not your fault, its somebody else’s’ that organised media wants to sell you (for interests that are diametrically and violently opposed to your own). A failure to take due care in the stewardship of your own country will result in social inequality, abuses of justice, economic decline and national unrest, which is of course, what has happened on an increasingly large scale in the US, and is a nagging problem in other western nations. If you want to see the cause of the problems in your country, go look in the mirror….

  13. Roger Johnson said,

    on January 30th, 2015 at 10:54 am

    I think Beau just gave me a whuppin’! He’s entirely correct of course.
    The American electorate is woefully ignorant of the issues. We take
    no interest in the mischief that our politicians are up to unless it hits us in the wallet and, by then, it’s usually too late. By the end of Obama’s second term, we will have had 16 years of abysmal leadership. Will we have learned from this and elect a competent president? Of course not! What do you think we are? Smart?

  14. Beau Roberts said,

    on January 30th, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Hi Roger

    Don’t worry, I give myself the same treatment. Goodness knows, I fail to heed my own advice on a regular basis, I think its human nature to apportion blame elsewhere to protect one’s own ego.

    On the original point, was the loss of American jobs over the years due to bad leadership, or a changing global economy which caused some economic inevitabilities to arise (migration of labor demand to low cost economies). Both, I think. Some form of protectionism is required in advanced economies to shield against the staggeringly competitive labor rates of 3rd world nations. The failure of leaders to enact protectionist laws is probably driven by corporate interests who hold disproportionate power within the elected governments of the day, which is then compounded by the failure of the general populace to (first) perceive the gradual erosion of their standard of living and (second) do something about it. My original point being of course, that because you are not: A. a powerful politician, or: B. a powerful corporate leader, your own education and actions and those of your fellow countrymen are your most potent weapon against the opposing interests arrayed before you.



  15. Beau Roberts said,

    on January 30th, 2015 at 11:53 am

    By the way, I can’t wait to read your US diaries Julian, surely the US has produced some of the worlds most significant technological achievements. I bet the technical museums were most impressive, I would love to go there myself one day…


  16. Edward said,

    on January 30th, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Beau, while I agree in theory. Assuming Democracy works as intended it’s hard for the average Joe to a) understand and wade through all the political BS/spin to get to the truth of what the a party/rep actually stands for, b) know that a party will stick with the policies you’ve voted for and c) have the opportunity to vote for a party that represents their ideals. In most cases there isn’t any one party that represents my interests so I’m choosing the ‘best’ apple from a dead apple tree. But yes, we all collectively need to look at politics more closely and treat elections as the life changing processes they are.

  17. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 30th, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Beau: Some of the technical museums were extraordinary, but others (billed as the best) were just dreadful.