As my husband’s Ph.D. work and our last year in Belgium both wind down, people ask if I’m excited to go home to the U.S.
And while my stomach flutters when I think of it, “excitement” might not be the most precise word. Excitement I can locate for some aspects, mostly seeing family and friends sans computer screens and 4,000+ interceding miles. I can’t wait for the kids to build more early memories with cousins — and with grandparents and great-grandparents, too.
I’m excited to get our stuff back, too. Reclaiming the trappings of our previous life will feel like Christmas. Somewhere there’s a STAND MIXER waiting for us. A nice one.
Moving to motherland soil also means more soil. Probably even a yard. (Cat! Dog!)
Finally, I’m excited about getting back to work, since here I haven’t got a work visa.
And that’s about where excitement stops and anxiety takes over. Not because our white/hetero/cis/middle-class privileges face any serious threat. And partly because we don’t have a fixed destination or plan or jobs yet. But also because, when living in America, even when things are settled, they just don’t feel as secure to me. That is, not as secure as I feel in Belgium, even when things are decidedly unsettled.
Now, Belgium is where I became a mother, and the only place I’ve lived as one. Parenthood forces routine, familiarity. It’s easier to get into a groove and favor that above change, perhaps. It’s certainly easier to worry.
But I’ve also noticed a curious change these past four years in Belgium. As an adult in the U.S., I hated spending, on myself or others. I rarely donated time or money, nor even indulged uncompensated hobbies, like painting or writing for pleasure. I sure worked though. Very hard, multiple jobs. I scrimped and I saved. I avoided medical care, even while insured, because of high co-pays and deductibles. I was constantly paying off student loans and squirreling away the funds needed for volatile gas prices and car repairs. In my twenties I already worried about retirement. All of that before having daycare or preschool expenses to think about.
But lately, I’ve relaxed a lot. Because in Belgium, that stuff barely factors into our budget. For example, with our health plan, we’re still on our own for some things (root canals, some counseling services, private hospital rooms). But otherwise, just over seven percent of my husband’s doctoral funding insures our family of four (with dental) for 75 percent of each (crazy low by our standards) medical bill. Vaccinations, early tests, and well-visits for kids under three are all free. And yes, insurance is required by law, but so accessible and affordable that, who cares?
This isn’t even the democratic socialism that Bernie Sanders aspires to. Belgium’s socialistic policies are moderate in the spectrum of developed nations. Only three months of (mostly) paid maternity leave are guaranteed here. Sure, that’s three months more than we get in the U.S., but it’s still measly compared to Bernie’s model countries.
Also, there’s no single-payer system in Belgium. The health insurance is privatized. Then why so cheap and efficient? As far as I understand, it comes down to some government regulation of the healthcare industry (so that, for example, disease profiteers can’t jack up the prices of life-saving drugs too far) and tax-funded government subsidies at the level of care itself. This dramatically reduces the costs of medical bills, so insurance companies can more easily pick them up. They even compete for clients by offering extra stuff, like a gift of more than 100 euros (or an even greater value in baby stuff) per parent for a birth.
Meanwhile, the Belgian government kicks down a birth bonus of around 1000 euros to each family, plus a generous monthly child allowance. Preschool is universally free for children 2.5 years and older. Daycare costs are also subsidized by the government based on family income. Since we are a low-income family, subsisting on one graduate student income, it’s nearly free for us. Half a day of our son’s daycare costs us less than a Starbucks coffee, and that includes his warm lunch. There’s little appreciable difference in quality among schools in Belgium.
This is crazy to me. (And I’m only focusing here on benefits received by working, middle-class residents, since that’s what’s relevant to my family.) But it’s not by any means considered radical on this side of the Atlantic.
I don’t know what it would take to for the U.S. to come closer to the rest of the developed world in terms of a better taxation to social benefits balance. But as far as I can tell, people pay about 10-20 percent more on taxes in Belgium than in the U.S. That doesn’t seem like much more to me considering the pay-back. If it does to you, try taking your family budget in the U.S. and then: subtract the majority of costs related to your/your family’s medical care (even after insurance). Do that again with daycare and preschool costs. Then with expenses related to cars (monthly payments, insurance, gas, maintenance), if you’re able and willing to hop on a train or bike path. Finally subtract the cost of university education and all subsequent interest on any student loans for you and your whole family. I’d bet that, over the course of the average American’s life, that exceeds 10-20 percent of what’s left over after our tax man comes.
Plus we aren’t guaranteed parental leave, or secure retirement, and our public transportation infrastructure sucks.
Is too much money going to defense spending? Probably. But I’m no military expert, and that topic taps into people’s sense of security on a whole different level. Still, one thing I can’t understand is why our taxation system coddles and caresses the already super-rich through tax breaks and such low accountability for corporate practices.
Probably these years in Belgium have been good for me physically. In part because we walk and bike everywhere, and in part because I don’t hesitate to seek medical care when needed. But I also suspect (hope) that, I’ve become healthier in other ways, too. I’d like to think I’m less of a miser now. I enjoy buying gifts again, donating doesn’t sting anymore, and I’m starting to think more about the ethics of food production before buying. I’m also less concerned about monetary compensation, and can therefore more easily focus on being with family and developing creative talents. We make much less than we did in the U.S. because I’ve been a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) here, but nonetheless I feel less vulnerable.
I’m not saying that freer reign capitalism turns us all into paranoid, isolated Scrooges. Nor am I suggesting that we’re helpless victims of socio-economic context with no personal responsibility. Maybe I’m just growing up. And certainly these changes I perceive, if indeed real, have multiple origins, but nevertheless I believe context has played an influential role for me.
When people argue about turning America into a more socialistic democracy, you don’t really hear about Belgium. Instead we’re talking about Denmark, Sweden, Iceland. And that’s fine. But there’s not a chance in Hell of our allocating taxes at the Scandinavian level of efficiency probably ever. And certainly not anytime soon.
What we in the U.S. consider untenable is held throughout much of Western Europe (not to mention, Canada, New Zealand, and others) as the basic standard for living. It’s easy to ignore that fact while living in the U.S. But from this perspective, to me anyway, the contrast is striking. And troubling.
I like Hillary Clinton. And I will support her enthusiastically if she’s chosen. But, having experienced the advantages of a true social democracy, and their perceived effects on my physical, ethical, and creative health, I’m easily distracted by the more dramatic changes to our economic system proposed by Bernie Sanders. Because from where I’m standing, that looks like the more rational platform. And urgently needed.
And you know what? I know that Bernie can’t achieve his professed goals while in office. Free university tuition, within four to eight years? And a single-payer healthcare system? And an infrastructure renaissance through clean air practices? In the United States of America? These are fantasies, at least for now. I know that. And Bernie must know that, too. But he’s probably also noticed that the GOP has a funny habit of vilifying and blocking even the most modest tweaks to our system. And I like how he’s changing the narrative. I like his unabashed praise for a system that works so well for so many thriving nations. As well as his apparent grasp of basic negotiation: ask for way more than you expect to get. If we can’t push forward incremental change, perhaps we should ask for a revolution and see where that takes us.
If we aim for Denmark, maybe we’ll land somewhere just a tiny-teeny bit closer to say, Belgium.