Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Health, wealth & happiness

Little Teadrinker has had an ear infection this week initiating us into the wonders of US health care. Having taken our lead from, we chose a recommended pediatrician down the road who works from a primary care clinic. The clinic is open 7 days a week and has specialists from 35 fields, all available at short notice. An impressive array of educational toys and a tropical fish-tank kept us entertained in the waiting room, although within 5 minutes we were whisked away by a nurse in Mini Mouse scrubs for a temperature check and a weigh-in.  Next it was straight to Dr Kim for an unrushed and comprehensive examination.  After writing a prescription for antibiotics she typed up a detailed note containing a number of practical tips for managing the pain until the antibiotics kicked in. We were asked to come back in ten days for a follow up,  and booked in for comprehensive 9-month and 12-month check-ups.
It seems that for those able to access it, US healthcare provides a top-rate service. Contrasted with the sort of treatment we have been used to on the NHS, it is nothing less than luxurious. Obama’s Health Reform Bill, much of which came into force last week, promises millions of less well off American families access to such services for the first time.  
Stunning as it might seem to a Teadrinking Mom from the old country, the Bill is proving one of the most divisive in years. The latest polls show that over half of the country are opposed.  A majority believe that it will benefit the poor exclusively, and that they’ll pay the price in taxes. Two thirds don’t think it will benefit them at all.  Most shockingly, 1in 3 elderly people still claim to be influenced by the ludicrous socialist death panel accusations which were put about by some of the rightwing press and members of the Tea Party last year.  The Republicans say that if they do well enough in the November Mid-term elections they will repeal the Act.
Its tempting to put this down to a political culture that is instinctively more individualist and hostile to the state than we are used to in Europe, where the ethos of collective responsibility is generally an accepted wisdom. (See Seymour Lipset’s 1996 book on American Exceptionalism for a brilliant explanation of the roots of these values). Wasn’t Obama always going to struggle, as Bill Clinton did before him, with a Bill that prioritised state regulation as a means for helping the poor?
There must be more to it than this though.  After all, America voted for Obama only two years ago and healthcare reform was one of his stated priorities.  The proposed reforms are small fry compared to welfarist policies successfully sold to the American electorate in the past such as the introduction of social security. 
What’s more, the Democrats have made a good crack of ensuring that the reforms benefit the many and not just the few.  Their analysis shows that the estimated $940 billion outlay will be more than recovered over 10 years through a package of measures in the bill, although some contest their figures.  And there will be a serious clamp down on the most ruthless practices of insurance companies that anybody can fall prey to. No longer will US parents have to endure sleepless nights because they can’t get cover for a daughter with a minor long-term health issue, or can’t foot the bill for a chronically ill son who’s been dropped by an insurer who deems them too costly.  
A quick Campusville dinner party poll reveals a good deal of consensus about what’s really going on: the Democrats are failing to get their message across to “the squeezed middle”.  A plethora of books have come out on the subject in the last couple of months penned by US politico-celebrities such as Arianna HuffingtonRobert Reich and Joan Williams The thinking is that majority in the middle of the income distribution, and most particularly the white lower-middle/working class, have seen their lifestyles and opportunities decline over the last 30 years and are now being pushed to the limit by the economic crisis.  They are in no mood for listening to reasoned arguments by mainstream politicians, least of all Democrats. 
A little more scrutiny is needed before we accept this theory.  Nonetheless, it is unusual for Americans to make a class analysis - more often they seem to think of class as a quaint British habit, that has no meaning the Land of the Free.  The fact that they are arguing now that a significant class fault-line has emerged seems worth focusing on. If they are right, the Health Reform Bill won’t be the last we see of it.  One for Teadrinking Mom to return to...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Motherhood & Apple Pie

Little Teadrinker has just made it successfully through her first full week in daycare.  After 8 months at home together it feels like a wrench, but looking at the moms around Campusville I'm reminded of how lucky we've been. The UK maternity deal may be average by European standards but it wipes the floor with the measly twelve weeks of unpaid job protected leave on offer to American women (and that’s thanks only to the relatively recent efforts of the Clinton Administration).  The US is the only Western country where women have no statutory right to paid maternity leave.  
You'd be forgiven for assuming that America's less appealing national traits are rooted in this epic failure to support parent/baby bonding in the critical first year of life.  But it doesn't seem so. According to the Professor teaching the sophomore psychology course I’ve been auditing, around 2/3 of children are “securely attached” – i.e. when stressed they go to their primary care giver for reassurance - and this is consistent across Europe and the US.    
So how come US children seem unaffected by such early separation?  A recent US study suggests that going back to work brings benefits to income, relationships and mental health that outweigh the negative effects *. That sounds like apple pie, but I can't help thinking there must be more to it.  A couple of features of family life on Campusville give pause for thought...
First, the moms here hug their babies tight.  Baby-sling wearing is such big business that the European designer pram fetish seems to have passed many by. I've not seen a single Bugaboo, or for that matter a single newborn in a pram. According to the New York Times there are now at least 30 companies promoting designer baby carriers in the US, and between 2006 and 2008 sales of carriers rose 43% 
Second, the women here pump like daemons.  By the time they go back to work many have produced enough breastmilk to fill all the teacups in New England.  But it doesn't stop there. As of this year, women's rights to pump are protected by Federal law and increasing numbers of employers have “mothers' rooms” specifically designed for the purpose.
Third, the ready supply of low-wage migrant labour here seems to mean that better off families have their pick of talented and dedicated nannies. Latinos are unsurprisingly the most common - hiring someone who speaks Spanish to your children all day is seen as a bonus - but recently Tibetans have been gaining popularity.  And crucially, its not uncommon amongst the nanny hiring class to appoint a nanny before the child’s been born, allowing the baby to get familiar and  form attachment from day one.
So women here, like women in adverse circumstances around the world, do find a way to make it work for them and their children. And there are no doubt things that early returners in Europe could learn from their US counterparts. But personally speaking, I'd take nine months maternity pay over office pumping any day.
*Note that this study looks at the effects of going back to work in the first year for American Moms - i.e. Moms who do not have an alternative of paid maternity leave available.  It does not offer any rationale for cutting UK maternity benefits in case you were wondering Mr Osbourne...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I like to be in America

It looks as if this week’s storm in a teacup may be blowing over. Obama’s call for tolerance following the mad Pastor’s Koran burning threat has not even featured on Fox News’ politics site and CNN have done a brilliant job reassuring us that the American melting pot is a happy love-in with a story about two guys on a road trip “Ali and Tariq were embraced nearly everywhere they went, from a Confederate souvenir shop in Georgia to the streets of Las Vegas, Nevada, to the hills of North Dakota” ...

Here in Campusville the locals certainly do their bit to reach out across cultural boundaries, making us feel very welcome despite our eccentric Anglo-ways. Advice and invitations abound from fellow parents, whether its Pamela in the playground, Janey in the bookshop and Christie in the coffee shop. The grocery store’s exotic international aisle even has a UK shelf baring marmite, Tetley teabags, baked beans and Ready Brek (don’t it make you proud).

In return, we’ve done our best to get on and fit in. I’ve got face ache and exhaustion from my efforts to be smilier, earlier and cleaner than comes naturally. And when our new friends tell us proudly that there’s a sing-along at the toy-store, a new-mom meet-up in Starbucks or baby yoga at the expensive gym in the next town I resist the temptation to boast about England's Children's Centres. Would the moms and dads here be envious if they knew? You don’t miss what you never had I guess. And thanks to their confident networking abilities and strong spending power, America’s ‘big society’ seems to be thriving all by itself in this middle class town.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Blueberry jam storm

Its been two days of blistering heat since we stepped off the plane, and now we’re preparing for a hurricane... Earl is on his way.  While this part of the Eastern Seaboard is not predicted to meet the eye of the storm, the weather men are saying the city could take some thrashing tonight.  The Mayor has declared a state of emergency and Liz our landlady, who while not landladying is being a leading academic authority on the art of writing a steamy novel, is coming round to help us secure the rickety windows of our clapboard house and clear the portch.

Meanwhile the Moms of Campusville have other things on their minds.  How do I know? There's nothing more that these people love than connectivity, so being a newby is no obstacle to getting the inside track. 1500 local moms have now collectivised through Yahoo messaging group which exchanges as many messages a month with numbers fast growing.  Exchanges are lively and cover everything from public breastfeeding rights to dealing with dads who give too many desserts.  Yet moms have not had time to worry about the storm. The preoccupation of the day has been a dramatic collision between Percy, friend of Thomas (the Tank Engine), and a parcel he is carrying which culminated in blueberry jam, with a distinctly bloody appearance, being spilt on the tracks. Should our children be exposed to this level of violence the moms wonder? There is concern that the “dynamics between the engines are surely sometimes less than kind”. Should I take this as the first bit of evidence that far from their liberal reputation East Coast moms are protective beyond belief?  Or that behind the facade lies an old fashioned, conservative soul, which only bares itself when it comes to deeply personal matters such as parenting? Perhaps I'm reading too much into it.  Perhaps the heat, or the blueberry jam, has just gone to their heads. Time will tell...