Three months ago, my husband, toddler son and I moved to the United States to pursue a work opportunity for him. It was sold to me as a temporary move- a year or two at most.
But now we are here, my lifelong Americana-phile of a spouse, who would happily live off a diet of Lucky Charms and deep fried Superbowl, is on a propaganda mission to get us to stay here permanently. Like a cross between a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Goebbels, he starts each day with a gleeful run down of the weather report in London (“cloudy and damp, high chance of suicidal misery”) while gesturing broadly at our sun-dappled California balcony and piercing blue skies. As we grow accustomed to the beautiful weather and easy livin’, my counter argument (“but you can’t buy those individual gel laundry detergent tablets here”) is sounding increasingly unconvincing.
I am starting to like it here too. We’ve met some great people, and unlike the cynical British, Americans have an ingrained positivity which is very compelling (just the other day I went to a yoga class in which the teacher urged everyone to “get into any pose your body is telling you to” and not a single person assumed the ‘lying down on the sofa eating crisps pose.’) But despite the friendliness of the folk and the ease of life here, there is one thing about America that will always trouble me.
Whether it comes from the legacy of British oppression, or from watching too much Fox News, many Americans, including some on the left, share a deep cultural suspicion of government. Much of that which in Britain is funded through taxation and provided by local or central government, here in America is in the hands of the private sector, the voluntary sector, or doesn’t exist at all. The biggest and most obvious example of this is healthcare, but the phenomenon stretches far wider than that. Living in the States with a young child makes me realise how impressive the public services in Britain are and how much we will lose as a society if we let them go.
My son was born in September 2010 back in the UK, a few weeks before George Osborne’s first ‘austerity budget.’ Plunged into the love-addled, isolating early months of motherhood, I was lucky to still be riding on the back of what the previous Labour Government had put in place- a network of over 3000 children’s centres all over the country, providing “childcare, health and family support and early education,” or, in other words, a place to go in those dark early months, to drink a polystyrene cup of tea, meet some mums, have a chat and regain some sanity. As my boy grew into a rambunctious toddler, they offered a daily range of activities for him and for me- ‘stay and plays,’ music groups, or just a place for us to go and let him run down his Duracell energy levels and practice the toddler ethics trinity: “no biting, no hitting and share as if your life depended on it.”
The services on offer were first-rate, but what impressed me most was the social range of the people using them. While my son finger-painted with kids from the local estate, I learned post-natal Pilates with a group of women including an investment banker from Hampstead, a couple of teenage mothers on benefits and a recent refugee from Afghanistan in a full burkha, all of us squeezing our pelvic floor muscles in unison- the perfect example of social cohesion. This was community in action, a social leveller more powerful than any I had ever encountered.
It’s rare that you get a true road test for your ideological hunches, but America is probably about as good as it gets as a model for what would happen if all of that were to disappear. The state is stripped back here to a level that makes George Osborne look like Trotsky and despite the fact that Americans have a huge appetite for philanthropy and volunteering (Americans give, on average a staggering six times as much to charity on average per person than the British) it doesn’t even begin to cover the shortfall.
We live in Berkeley, generally acknowledged to be one of the most socially conscious places in America, but the free activities for children here are few and far between. I’m told by my impressively motivated and frugal friend Susie that there is more available if you look hard, but my own search has turned up little more than a couple of bits and pieces at the public library and an uninviting sounding offering called ‘Godly Play’ at the local church. For the most part, those of us who like to keep our Supreme Beings separate from our stacking cups, have to pay for toddler activities.
Parents of toddlers are a perfect captive market for anyone out to make a buck or two and most people who have spent an extended period of time cooped up in an apartment with a lively two year old, will recognise the impulse to grab their chequebook and sign over the family farm to any fool with a guitar and the chord sequence for the Wheels on the Bus. In the absence of state sponsored services it’s the private sector that steps in to make up the shortfall and consequently, most children’s activities here cost around $10 a session, usually with a ten session minimum sign-up period. This means that only the privileged can afford to take part.
Perhaps because of the initial outlay, American parents expect a lot for their money, ideally in the form of a measurably improved child, and the pre-school activities here can have the intensity of the Ivy League. A random selection of what’s being advertised for toddlers and their parents on the noticeboard in our local playground includes something called ‘Kodaly Music’ classes, which promise to “increase the size of my child’s corpus callosum by 10 to 15 percent;” Mandarin Immersion school and classes in the ‘Mindful Parenting Method’ (presumably a rival to my own patented ‘Mindless Parenting Method’ which involves judicious use of Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs and Facebook.)
It is unsurprising, given the cost, that the children’s activities here that I have been to have been populated for the most part, by the children of the rich and highly educated, with the main social diversity being provided by the Mexican nannies. My American friends remind me that the picture is more complex than it appears to me now, and that as we stay here longer and get more involved in the community we will find more free and cheaper activities and more of a social mix. I hope so, because if not, it is entirely possible that if we do stay here, my son could reach school age without ever encountering a child whose parents do not have a college education.
I fear that Britain is heading in the same direction. David Cameron’s speeches share the American belief that government is not a force for good, but something of which we should be wary. His keenness to cut public services is not just about balancing the budget, and the belief, right or wrong that such services are unaffordable. This is a deeper, ideological mission, evidenced in government policy from healthcare to education and beyond, that the state infantilises us and stops us from being our best selves, and consequently should be scaled back as much as possible. His big idea is that once this happens, out of the ashes of our public services will rise an army of willing volunteers, ready to step up and provide the same services on an ad-hoc, charitable basis. This is his so-called “Big Society.”
Even before I came to America, I was always sceptical about how this idea would work in practice. I know I can be prone to laziness, but public services are kinda complicated to run, and most people I know are kinda busy, so the idea that one of my neighbours might be moved to start, say, an Early Years Centre out of her front room always sounded a little unlikely. For an individual to organise, without remuneration, even a tiny fraction of what is currently provided by the state in Briatin, would take a person not just with an awful lot of time on their hands, but also an unbelievable driving zealotry. In short, probably the type of person that I would cross the street to avoid. In a variant of the Groucho Marx paradox, the type of person that wants to be running public services in their spare time is probably the type of person I wouldn’t want running my public services.
Coming to America, I realise that my hunch was right. When you scale back the state, for the most part, volunteers don’t magically step in to pick up the slack, the private sector does. Despite the best efforts of many fantastically philanthropic people here, America is not a Big Society, but a divided one.
A society that funds its services through taxation, not just for children, but for the elderly and the sick and the poor and anyone else who needs them, is taking collective responsibility for the common good. It is guaranteeing those services rather than leaving them to the whims of the market and the private motivations of individuals. It is making those services accessible to all, and not just to the privileged. A society like that is a true Big Society, where people pay according to their ability, and consume according to their need. People who resent the outlay should consider that a life in which one pays out far more in tax than one will ever consume in services is a lucky life indeed. British public services should be one of our proudest achievements as a nation. Lets hope they are not fully dismantled before I get home again.