A Vagabond’s comparison of Australia and the U.S.

I’ve been living, traveling, volunteering and working in Australia for the past 7 months now and have come to the conclusion that the United States can do a lot better for its people. Universal healthcare like everything else has its horror stories but I don’t think they compare to the stories I hear of mentally ill American Citizens being escorted out of an emergency room and left to fend for themselves on the streets because they don’t have healthcare. I know elderly Americans that have worked hard their entire lives only to find out that there’s a lot of necessities that Medicare doesn’t cover and therefore find themselves working at some low wage disempowering fast food job. In some American neighborhoods there are more foreclosed homes than homes with families in them, yet the banks (that we bailed out) are making record breaking profits. My generation was encouraged to pursue an education and a debt that would make us wage slaves for the first 15 plus years of our independent lives. Statistics point out the rise in 20-somethings living with their parents and posit that it’s due to the tough economy, student loans, slow job market. The fact of the matter is that there is a system set up in the United States that has been around since we pilfered the land from the Native Americans; this system marginalizes the poor and disenfranchised to maintain the status quo. The loss of the middle class is proof enough.

Where is the uproar when American money is being wasted supplying weapons and aggressively attacking other nations when many American citizens don’t have access to healthcare, are living at or below poverty, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from? Universal healthcare has its kinks like anything else; however, these are nowhere near as disastrous as millions of Americans not having access to healthcare or losing everything they’ve got due to some medical crisis. All being members of the same country there should not be this hierarchy of who gets decent medical treatment and who gets thrown under the bus. I am positive if given the choice a majority of Americans would prefer to receive healthcare at affordable prices instead of funding some international raid or bailing out the sleaziest of the 1%. But we are not given that choice. We are given two choices: a democrat and a republican. We are told they are very different. The democrat will more or less support same sex marriage and hopefully show a little respect for a woman’s body; the republican will most likely do neither of these. While these are important distinctions they serve to distract us from a greater problem which is that we are essentially voting for the same person. While a lot might change for big business, depending on which corporations financially backed which candidates, not much ever really changes for the average American. Obama’s talking about raising the minimum wage by a dollar or so. What a joke! It’s sad when Americans have such high expectations of their country that values them so little. Just the other day fast food workers in 50 cities walked out on the job to protest the right to a union, which would give them a collective voice, and they were also asking for a living wage of $15 an hour. Nationally the minimum wage is currently not more than $8 an hour. $8 an hour. That is $64 for an 8 hour day, which is $320 for a 40 hour week. Keep in mind that’s before taxes. Here we are barely making enough to pay rent and feed ourselves, never mind any family’s we might have, and the government has decided to cut our food stamps (SNAP benefits) program. Not only that but there is a negative stigma associated with collecting food stamps as if you are a leech sucking away at your country’s hard earned prosperity. While most of your taxes are spent on making us more enemies, polluting our air and making more roads, a very very very small amount of your taxes are going to fund the food stamp system. This is not money the government is kindly handing out to the hungry, this is often money that the hungry has had taken straight out of their pockets. The Food Stamp Program and WIC program (which helps new mothers pay for baby formula) have helped and continue to help millions of Americans. People will find a way to abuse every system but it angers me how quick people are to blame food stamp recipients of “abusing” the system. Let’s put this in perspective. Food stamps recipients are given a card that can then only be used to purchase food items. The maximum an individual can be “exploiting” the system is $200 spent on food in a month. That amounts to a whopping $2.22 a meal. It’s a good thing you can’t buy fast food with food stamps because you’d have to skip 5 or so meals to be back on budget. These people aren’t swindling the working class out of their life savings’ to buy a few more luxury houses now are they? No, but occasionally they do buy a steak, god forbid someone on a budget chooses to really splurge every now and then. This is what you call a double standard, plain and simple. The government can’t just use the peoples’ money to provide a service back to the people without making them feel guilty for it first. How dare we think the government is there for our sake.

This piece has been all over the place but I’ll bring it back to Australia. I’ve been doing odd jobs here but have finally secured some steady work the past four weeks. On average I got paid $9 an hour at the assortment of warehousing jobs I’ve done in America. If I count all the years of retail, food production and customer service wages that hourly wage average would drop to around $8 (still above the minimum wage of my home state). The warehousing and food production work I’ve been doing here in Australia hasn’t required any special certifications and I’ve been paid $21, $25, $28, and $31 an hour. I worked on one Saturday where I was paid time and a half for the first two hours of work and double time for the last 3.5 hours of work, which amounted to $310 for my 5.5 hour shift. Keep in mind that I hadn’t worked 40 hours at that place that week, this is just how they compensate employees for work on Saturdays and Sundays. In the U.S. I’ve been required to work on weekends constantly and I never receive any more pay than on a Monday. Australia has taught me that our time is not valued in the United States as employees. They also receive significantly more money working afternoon (3-11pm) and grave (12pm-8am) shifts because they believe employees deserve to be compensated for working less traditional hours that would have a toll on social relations. Wow, how nice. I’m sure they do this at a few places in the U.S. but here it’s a requirement. By the way, the $31 an hour I got paid was for day shift. It was difficult and faced paced but nothing I haven’t done for $8 an hour in the states already.

People ask me how I like working here and of course I mention how great the pay is. This statement is generally followed by something along the lines of “Well yeah but Australia is much more expensive”. My gut reaction to this is that while Australia is more expensive in many regards it’s minimum wage is double the American minimum wage and costs of groceries and rent do not reflect that. Groceries are slightly more expensive here which makes a lot of sense considering it is an island and that requires more travel costs. I’ve actually noticed some groceries to be cheaper here than in the states: cooking oil, breads, some hygiene products etc. In terms of equivalency, all groceries here would have to be twice as expensive as in America (at the time of writing this the American dollar and Australian dollar were about the same)  and that is certainly not the case. Now for the cost of housing. In the U.S. I sublet and pay in general $400 a month ($100/ week) living in a cheaper city. Keep in mind this cheap rent is not something I could get away with if I lived in Los Angeles, NYC, Boston, San Francisco, etc. In Melbourne, Australia my partner and I found a run down old house to sublet and we were paying $140 as a pair a week, which comes to $70 each a week or $280 each a month. That seemed to be the minimum as for living as a pair and at the time I thought it a bit expensive (that was before I was able to find actual paying work). Honestly I find the subletting situations pretty comparable in the United States and Australia, again the only difference being that in the U.S. I was working 40 hour weeks to earn $400 (before taxes) and here I’m earning $840.

Here’s what I can see when comparing Australia to the U.S. When my Australian partner gets sick he walks to the clinic ½ km from his house, waits about 15 minutes to see a doctor and gets what he needs at minimal cost. When I was sick last winter I was uninsured (despite having worked full time for the last 3 months) and put off getting treatment until one morning when I was having difficulty breathing and we waited outside the nearest clinic (10 miles away) in a line for 30 minutes waiting for them to open at 7am. I then took a number like I was at the cheese counter and waited again trying to minimize the walking parasite I must have resembled. After an hour of waiting I signed my life away and then went to my own little table to lay on, separated by others by a sheet. I then waited there for an hour coughing my guts out until I was taken to the x-ray room where two x-rays were taken in a matter of two minutes. After thirty more minutes of waiting a nurse I had not yet seen came in to inform me that I did not in fact have pneumonia like they suspected and that they weren’t sure what it is. I was uninsured and therefore a liability which means that other tests would not be conducted to determine exactly what it was that I had. I was given a prescription for cough syrup with codeine that made me hallucinate and costed me $15 and then sent on my way. We drove 10 miles to the nearest pharmacy where I waited again, paid for my prescription and then went home where I would continue to be sicker than I’ve ever been for two more months, lose my job, become depressed and receive a bill for $1500 for two x-rays and some cough syrup. Needless to say, universal healthcare does not scare me as much as the privatized healthcare system that the U.S. currently runs on. I’m going to quote some Curb Your Enthusiasm here and say “that be some bullllllllshit.”

I’ve got more to say, as always, but it’s a nice day out and I’ve got to go to work later to make 3 times my American wages. Better live it up while I’m here.

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