Don't take healthcare and holidays for granted in the US

by Joanne Black / 27 January, 2018

Ultra Aviation workers went on strike last June asking for better wages and health insurance plans at Miami International Airport. Photo / Getty Images They're a small Kiwi comfort here, but not in American workplaces.

I had a conversation the other day with a woman, Alice, who recently started working four hours a day at a local school. She said she was taking a while to adjust to having her day broken up but was grateful for the work, because she and her husband had been desperate for either of them to get a job “with benefits”.

Jobs with benefits are not like friends with benefits. In the US, usually the most important job benefit is health insurance. Annual leave is a benefit, too, but it is secondary to health insurance. In Alice’s case, for as long as she stays in the job, the health insurance will cover her, her husband, and their children until they turn 21.

This is a great relief to the family because, without insurance, Alice has taken her children to the doctor at US$150 per visit if they have needed to go, but she and her husband have not been for years. It is hard to imagine the anxiety of living in a country where no health insurance means either no hospital access or a financial struggle as a “self-pay” patient.

The lowest-income earners usually qualify for Medicaid and its reach was extended under the previous administration’s Affordable Care Act, but provision varies from state to state. The more you learn, the more complex it gets.

I am perplexed by those Americans who seem to think that allowing universal healthcare today would lead to nationalising farms tomorrow and, before you know it, you’re singing The Red Flag and annexing Crimea. The best thing to be said for the US health system is that it is unique.

The second year of Donald Trump’s term as US President has begun, disappointing all those who hoped that he would not last 12 months.

It has been a terrifically entertaining first year. No other modern leader has so dominated the news agenda – not just at home but globally. “Oh my God, have you seen Trump’s latest tweet” is a standard conversation opener here. On the downside, the world seems to have had less oxygen in it since he became President.

The reaction to each of his outbursts leaves little space for discussion about anything else. World news barely gets a look-in, except in relation to Trump. Thus there has been coverage of North Korea and a rumbling anxiety about trade disputes with China; otherwise, the Asia-Pacific region does not exist.

The Brexit wrangle gets some coverage, and Americans are secretly fascinated by Britain’s royal family, but the rest? Western Europe? Who needs it?

There are fears that Trump will pull the plug on the North American Free Trade Agreement, at which point Canada might also drop off the radar and Mexico will exist only in the context of where and when the wall gets built. “Shithole” countries just had their 15 minutes of fame.

Only history will tell us what it all means, but it is not entirely bad that the rest of the world stops thinking of the US as the axis on which international diplomacy revolves.

Pushing ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement without the US was the right thing to do. The rest of the world cannot pretend Trump is not here, but it can act as though he is the disruptive, friendless kid in class.

People with sense get on with what matters, knowing that one day he will drop out or be expelled and those who stayed focused will be rewarded.

This article was first published in the January 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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