Australian shocked by US poverty

Dear Mr Bageant,

I noticed your book Deer Hunting with Jesus at Borders while killing time waiting for my plane, bought it and couldn't stop reading. I just loved it, although you do paint a very sad picture. However, if sad is the truth then there is no point sugar-coating it, and you haven't.

I am 32 and my only overseas trips (I'm Australian) have been to America. I went in 2005 and again last year, with my ex. We could have afforded to go anywhere in the world, but both had our heart set on going to America. What has Europe got that can be more fun than America? Our 2005 trip was non-stop fun, including Vegas, Grand Canyon, Manhattan, New Orleans, Miami and San Francisco. It was a big adventure in a booming economy where everyone had lots to spend. After one month, we had to leave, but promised to come back because we loved it.

By the second trip in January/February 2008, America had a much gloomier feel, with the subprime crash starting to ripple through the system. On that trip we spent time in place like Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, the less glamorous parts of America where few foreigners go. I even wanted to go to Detroit to see if it was as bad as its made out to be, but unfortunately didn't have time. I can honestly say I was truly shocked at some of the poverty there to be seen in the richest nation on earth. Even in Chicago, one of the wealthiest cities, there were many homeless. But places like Lexington, Little Rock, Paris Texas and other rust-belt places shocked me.

Of course, everyone has heard how America has little social safety net, but when you see crowds of people queued up outside a soup kitchen, while we tourists are spending money like there's no tomorrow, you feel a bit guilty. I gave money to some homeless people who asked, even though I was told by people, and saw city signs that told me not to. I also know how hard the service workers have it, and I always tip well. I usually give 25% as a rule, and if she is good looking I might give more (haha). They truly do work hard, and try their best.

The best thing about your book is the authenticity. Had you approached such a subject as a European, it would not have worked because in my experience Europeans are incredibly snobby (especially towards America), and the book would have come across as just European yank-bashing. But since you lived it, nobody could argue you with you.

In your intro, you mentioned that we have it good in Australia, and I agree. I have an income that puts me in the top 2% of earners, but it took a lot of study and effort to get there, I didn't get there through relatives and nobody just handed it to me. As a rule, I will not give money to Salvation Army here because of our welfare state. I sponsor kids in Africa because they don't have a welfare system, and support charities for rescued dogs and training dogs for the blind. In other words, it's not their fault they need charity.

The poor in Australia have many opportunities to improve, and every single unemployed person I have ever met has been just lazy and milking the system. The way I see it, the federal government takes $700 a week! out of my pay for the welfare state, it's not my job to pay more. However in America, I would feel differently because people do get trapped in that low wage cycle you so accurately described. Here, there is a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) that loans you money for university. Therefore, even if you're born poor you can still improve your life, nobody is denied a place on the basis of income or social status. I used this system to get my bachelor's degree, and so can anyone. Anyone in Australia who fails to take advantage of these opprtunities afforded them has no business complaining about their lot in life. You can leave school in this country, never work a day in your life, and your benefits never expire. I take your point about social safety nets, but they do contain many disincentives, especially for people with kids. Sometimes they can get more from welfare if the only work they would qualify for is low paid stuff.

I have felt I would like to live in America, and have applied for that green card lottery five times. However, this year I would not want to win, with the bad economic situation. But, I will definitely go back there many times in my life as there is so much to see. I have told my current Mrs, who has never been overseas, that we must go there for a trip. I just can't really think of Europe as being attractive, America has so much to offer and I will go there at least twice more before I would go to Europe.

I have to say I was a little surprised at how mean you said some of your fellow citizens were. During my total of two months in America, I found the people to be very nice, and they really do have a heart of gold and I think the American people get a bad rap amongst foreigners. For instance, checking into a roadside motel in Kenab, Utah, or chatting with the trolley drivers in DC, the American people we interacted with were very nice indeed. Sure, in NYC people are a bit grumpy and surly, but I think that's true in big cities everywhere. I thought it was a brilliant place, but then I was living it as a tourist who has thousands of dollars with which to do whatever, and buy whatever, he wants. I can picture how hard it is for that underclass you described. I truly hope things do get better, because I genuinely believe that America is the land of the free where anyone can make it big.

My favourite experience in America is a tie between being in the audience for a Jerry Springer taping in Chicago (tacky and braindead yes, but a lot of fun!) and visiting the Reagan presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, California. I get the impression you don't think highly of Reagan, but to me as a foreigner he is the greatest conservative that ever lived in any society in any era. I actually named my dog Reagan.

So thanks for the insight into America, it was educational and enlightening (although a damn bleak picture). I hope the people you mentioned can somehow find a way out of their problems. At least, if they serve me a meal or a drink I will give them a good tip and a smile and thank them, not treat them like insignificant garbage as I have seen some people do. America will correct itself, it always does. Have a good day

Best Regards

Andrew
New South Wales, Australia

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