Blog · March 14, 2012

What is the American Dream anyway?

“Everywhere around the world, they are coming to America”… that’s the words of a song  by Neil Diamond which always pulled at my heartstrings. America always enticed me, and while I never planned to live here per se, the idea of adventure, success and fun was always synonymous to it.

I grew up in Europe, Italy to be exact. I never realized how different growing up there was until I now compare my son’s childhood in the US with my nieces and nephew back in Italy. There is no comparison. Apples and Oranges.  I can’t even say that one is better than the other, it all depends on what is important to you. Having lived in both places, I have an unique prospective, I can actually compare and contrast without being biased.

School Lunch in Italy

For example… I love the team spirit of American High Schools, the willingness to make school ‘fun’ no matter the subject, the extracurricular activities and the graduation ceremonies that just do not exists in Italy. On the other side of the coin, I honestly feel Italian schools do a much better job in teaching geography, foreign languages (I was at one point completely fluent in French) and the field trips were superb… and… I didn’t even mention School Lunches! My mom is a great cook, but I always enjoyed eating in the cafeteria, the food was amazing. That cannot be said here at all, can it? Like I said, apples and oranges.

Wanna hear more apples and orange stories?
My sister bought a condominium in Italy a few years ago. I am not too familiar with mortgages in Italy, and I know the down-payment was rather large, but suffice to say that her payments are even. Which means that whatever interest she is paying on the loan, she does not pay ALL the interest first, with paying off the mortgage itself coming last at the end of the loan’s life. Nop. My dad says it’s against the law! Each payment reflects a portion going against paying off the principal, plus whatever interest portion for that month, and it’s equal for the entire life of the loan. Of course that was not the case with our house, our ‘American Dream’. Do I sound sarcastic? I am. Yes, our house is much bigger, but our mortgage… we might as well call it a ‘disaster’.

My abandoned neighborhood, circa 2009

When we moved in this ‘new’ neighborhood back in 2006, homes were in the $300k range and the banks would NOT give anyone a 30 year loan UNLESS you had a 20% down-payment. Needless to say, nobody here had $60-70k just sitting around hence not a single one of my neighbors was able to get that elusive 30 year loan. Not even my sweet neighbor who moved next door the day after we did and put $60k down. Instead, depending on the down-payment and credit scores, they gave everyone a 2, 3 or 5 year ARM and if you ‘behaved’ and made your payments on time, they would let you refinance at the end of the term and give you the 30 year loan. Only… 2 years later the home bubble burst, and homes’ values went down to one third of their original price. Here’s a little known fact: Banks will only refinance up to the VALUE of the house, not whatever the original loan was for. My entire neighborhood became vacant. Homeowners were faced with the downfall of the ARMS, unable to refinance. If they stayed with their original loan, the payment would double or go up at least $1,000, or, they could just walk away. Sure, their credit would be ruined, but what other choice was there? It really angered me when on TV I would hear pundits blaming the consumers for buying homes they could not ‘afford’. Guess what… if the greedy banks would have given homeowners the 30 year loans up front, NONE of this would have happened. And, that’s the sad truth. As for us? We applied for a modification for our loan about 4 times now, we’re still waiting. At least our payment is not going up. As per ever owning this house… I am doubtful.
BTW, there was no such thing as house bubble burst in Italy. Hmmm.

Another apples and oranges issue that is near and dear to my heart is Health Care. Actually in this case, things are SO different, I should say one is a fruit, say, apple and one something completely different, like… gum, or a potato chip. They do not even fall into the same category. One is a fruit, one is junk. Unfortunately on this issue I do vastly prefer the Italian system, and for good reason. The American system left me with a mountain of medical bills resulting in a bankruptcy, which led us to lose our house, our cars, everything, and we were never without insurance. Bills included services and products insurance refused to pay for and mounting co-pays that left even my bankruptcy lawyer baffled.
I am not alone. 60% of all bankruptcies result from Medical Bills. Rick Santorum paid over $100k of his own money for products and services for his disabled daughter, which is more than most Americans earn in a year, yet he’s the first to tell you he wants Health Care Reform Repealed. The same Health Care Reform our family has grown to appreciate and has helped tremendously in at least 4 different ways so far.
1. It allowed my husband’s daughter to stay on his health insurance while she finishes College.
2. It eliminated many c0-pays which already saved us hundreds of dollars.
3. It ensures us that once Nicky is all grown up and on his own (yes, I choose to be optimistic, so much research is going on, something is bound to help him within the next decade) his pre-existing condition will never be an issue.
4. It eliminated caps insurances put on ‘expensive’ patients. Make no mistake, Nicky is beyond expensive. But for that, I will let the following video do the talking.

The Italian Health Care system was established 65 years ago in 1947. When Italy was re-adjusting after World War 2, and fascists were expelled from Parliament, a new Republic emerged which replaced the Kingdom. With the help from major political players from all over Europe and most famously, from several of Roosevelt’s men who wanted Europe to regain independence and get completely rebuilt, the National Health Care System was included in the new Constitution. And that was that.

Pope Benedict XVI

Even recently the Pope stated that it was the moral responsibility of nations to guarantee access to health care for all of their citizens, regardless of social and economic status or their ability to pay.
Growing up, even as my grandmother was spending months in the hospital dealing with an aggressive form of breast cancer, which spread into the lungs, and after double amputation surgeries, rounds of chemo and radiation, I never heard anyone utter the word “Medical Bill”.  It’s just not part of the vocabulary. My other grandmother, the one that lived to be over 100 years old, benefited by having the Doctor visit HER at the house! Imagine that. Visiting Doctors. That is the norm in Italy, I remember plenty of times when my mom had to call if one of us girls was sick, a Doctor came right over.
My dad told me that my great-grandfather Angelo, who was my grandma’s Rina’s father, was a huge supporter of the Health Care System in Italy. He told my dad something he never forgot. He said it’s better for everyone to pay a little, and everyone be okay, rather than let anyone be robbed of their life savings, their retirement, their house by an illness. So, yes, there is a payroll tax specifically for Health Care in Italy, but even if you’re not employed, you’re covered. One can ALSO purchase private insurance if you feel you must, but that is just an extra. Because everyone is covered, there is no inflating costs like it happens here in the US. For example, I found out that an MRI costs $900 around Europe, while my husband’s MRI was $9,000 here in the US. I was appalled. Why so much? Because of the uninsured. People that pop into the ER and can’t be turned away will never pay, so costs have to be inflated to make up for it.  Which brings me to yet another point I never hear people make: why jobs get shipped oversea? Partly because of how costly it is for the employer to offer benefits. Employers in other countries don’t have to worry about having to offer Health Insurance, which is a cost that is then deferred in giving extended vacations to their employees or higher salaries. Oh… I hear it coming a mile away… ‘but one has to waaaaiittt’. Sure, if it’s something that ‘can’ wait. But my dad is adamant, if it’s an emergency, they take you the SAME DAY! My dad started having double vision out of the blue one day last year, he waited a couple of days and when it didn’t go away, he visited the local ‘mutua’ to see a Doctor. The SAME DAY they sent him to get tests and more tests and he got the results the next day. I could give examples until I am blue in the face, but you get my drift. There is no bankruptcies over Medical Bills in Italy. Am I upset I had to have one? You bet.

I find it very insulting when people who NEVER lived oversea, let alone ever left the country and never even owned a passport can speak so nastily about something they can’t possibly know anything about. I assure you for every horrid story you may hear of and you hang your hat on, there are 10+ comparable ones if not worse in the US. So, instead of repealing, let’s improve on it, although I am not holding my breath that I am convincing anyone. Some things are only learned once we are knee deep into them. When the time will come in your life that you get real sick, and your Medical Bills start to mount, remember I told you so. Only then you will say… “Oh”.

So, I may seem a little down about the United States. Truth is, I do love this country. I’ve never lived anywhere else as an ‘adult’. I am very proud of my citizenship and I will go on record as saying that despite my reservations on what I call the appalling state of Health Care in this country, I will say that given another chance, I would do it all over again.

But… what is the American Dream anyway? I tell you what it’s not. It’s not owning a house, ha ha. It’s Social Mobility. Plain and Simple. It’s the ability of one generation to change their economic status for the better compared to their parent’s, and the four countries with the highest social mobility were Denmark, Norway, Finland and Canada. Surprised?  At least five large studies in recent years have found that social mobility is lower in America than in comparable nations.  The more advanced a society is, the more you will see things such as taxation, welfare, education and public transport. You reduce those and you reduce the Social Mobility and the American Dream. Rings a bell anyone?

So the American Dream now belongs to Denmark? Apparently so! But the question is, not ‘how is this possible, I thought we were the best, yada, yada yada” line of superiority I hear, but it SHOULD be: “What can the U.S. Learn about Denmark?”