Feb 12, 2013

America's Broken Dream.

I'm definitely not the first person to observe this but holidaying in a foreign country gives you a very different feel of the place than if you were to live there as an ordinary citizen.  For the most part, my impression of what life is like in the real world of a city has been restricted to casual people watching whilst abroad or else through a diverse range of reading material.

I had the opportunity to watch the documentary 'America's Broken Dream' on 4 Corners last night.  It was a disturbing look at the lives of three different American families and their struggle to survive in California (one of the few US states with much in the way of welfare) and Florida (where the suburbs surrounding a Disney theme park are now populated by Americans who live for years in one bedroom units normally meant for Disney tourists because its cheaper than paying rent or a mortgage).  Each family was living some version of the American Dream, holding down regular work and content with their lot before job losses and long term unemployment sent them all in a downward spiral in terms of their standard of living and quality of life.

The plight of these families had echoes of the Great Depression and the work house period of English history.  It sent a chill through me that progress seems to touch every aspect of our lives except for how the poor are treated.  It made me feel ashamed of the fact that what I loved most about my recent visits to the US was the fact that everything was so cheap, personal tax rates are low and everyone I met seemed happy in their job.  Surely that must mean that the cost of living is so low for the locals that living in comfort must be easier to achieve than in Australia?  What I didn't factor into my glib assumption is that with minimal tax comes minimal spending on tax payers.  Those people I saw happy in their jobs were probably earning the minimum wage and depending on our tips to keep their heads above water.

After watching the documentary, I found it hard to be just a casual observer of American life.  So many people's lives seemed destroyed by factors beyond their control - the financial crisis, the mortgage crunch and the (lack of) comprehensive government support for Americans when they need it most.

It was hard not to feel anger on behalf of people who were forced to live in motels or in their cars when their houses were repossessed.  It's hard not to question why children are placed into foster care because their parents are in dire financial straits when surely giving those parents some kind of financial aid would be better for the family in the longer term.

While the parents of the families were able to put on a happy face and try to be upbeat about the future, the pain of living a hand to mouth existence had already scarred their children.  Three year olds living in cars were able to tell their mothers that they were 'not happy' living the way they did.  Ten year old boys spoke of being 'the man of the house' and trying to shield their mothers and sisters from the pain and uncertainty this lifestyle entails.

Sadly, as President Obama prepares for his first State of the Union speech in his second term as President, the dreams and hopes for the country's future are probably strongest in his powerful speeches as opposed to in the hearts and minds of quite a few Americans.  As 'America's Broken Dream' so eloquently reveals, something terrifying is happening to the middle class who for decades worked hard, paid their taxes and enjoyed a high standard of living as the fruit of their labour.  I hope someone finds more than words for these people and that they do so soon.


  1. I wish I could see this documentary - tracking the US economy is part of my day job. The sheer resilience of Americans always amazes me - there is no safety net for workers there and I find it mind blowing that people holding down serious jobs can end up living in their cars very quickly.

  2. I've just been to Cuba- the anti-USA.
    Say what you want about communism, it has its issues, but their children don't live in cars.

  3. The documentary sounds really good, wish I had seen it! I remember reading a book my bestie let me borrow - I cannot remember the name or author, but it was written by a journalist who decided to leave her life behind and work minimum wage jobs for a while to see how she got by - and it was so eye-opening. If I ever remember the name of the book I'll let you know! We really are very lucky to live here in Australia.

  4. Dear SSG

    so glad you posted this- those people and those children and babies have been much on my mind today. My kid is asleep in a cot with a roof over his head and it just killed me that those babies, those divine little girls slept in a car. It was Brutally sad and wrenched my heart. I think it is shameful that kids live like that in middle class families in such a rich nation.

    I can tell that you are doubly affected because of baby ssg.


  5. Wow what a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing something so moving and so important. I also live in Europe and struggle between what people think of as an idealic life from what they see as tourists-- the crisis is well and truly alive here. Also thank you for not being one of those mommy bloggers that once they have a baby tr outside works stops existing. As a longtime reader I was worried if your blog would still be relevant for those of us who are not young mums!

  6. Don't be sucked in by the myth that the cost of living and taxes are so low in the USA. Husband and I are both expats Aussies living in the USA, have been here for 15 years. Last year we paid 23% Federal, 9.5% State and 6.4% Social Security taxes. Don't forget the 1% we pay for Medicare that we can not use. The only people who pay low taxes are the really rich who get their income from investments. COL here in California is expensive unless you eat rubbish food.

    I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who were foreclosed on. Most were living way beyond the limits of their income and have been able to walk away without having to pay financially for their mistakes. There are so many stories of people who had lived in the same house for 50 years and were foreclosed on because they had sucked out hundreds and thousands of dollars to buy crap. I personally have friends who were foreclosed on, but they still don't get that it was because of the choices they made.

    I used to work as an Accounting Manager at a firm of professionals. These are college educated people who didn't have the brains to sock any money away beyond the minimum in their retirement funds. Every year when bonus time was coming around they were in my office to tweak their tax withholdings as they needed to receive the maximum money to pay off their credit cards. Even as people were getting laid off, and salary cuts across the board were being made these fools were still raiding their retirement funds to take loans to buy $20k boats.

    Another thing that gets to me, this financial crisis began back in 2008. What I don't understand is if you are struggling financially why keep adding to your family with more children. It is totally selfish to bring children into this world if you can not provide the basics for them. So these people living in their cars with 3 yos, did they not observe what was going on around them?

  7. You can watch it on iView, or at 7pm on Saturday on Channel 24

  8. Hi Vicky

    Thank you for taking the time to provide such a detailed and factual response to my post. I found it very informative and I think it provides good balance to what I've written.


    SSG xxx

  9. What a horrible situation.

  10. the book is - nickle and dimed


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