America, land of the (not-so) free, home of the (very) brave

America, land of the (not-so) free, home of the (very) brave

America, land of the (not-so) free, home of the (very) brave

Updated 25 July 2017, 8:20 AEST

Scratch the surface, and the idea of America as a bastion of freedom and land of opportunity for those who have what it takes to "make it" on their own can starkly contrast with the reality.

In 2011, I made the decision to cut short my stint working in America and return to Australia.

The catalyst was the birth of my first son, and my desire that he experience the same safe, sedate and relatively remote Australian childhood I enjoyed.

The decision to move back to Brisbane less than three years after my arrival in Boston also came despite a lifelong mission to live and work in the United States, where I was born.

Don't get me wrong, the allure of cities such as Boston and New York - intellectual and cultural capitals unlike anything in Australia - still tugged strongly at the single, childless, career-driven young adult in me. And my time working, living and travelling in the US more than fulfilled my expectations of an astoundingly diverse and unrelentingly interesting country. Having also lived in France, I found the patchwork of states that make up America much like the European Union - in that nearly every time you crossed a border you encountered a different accent, food, architectural style and sense of identity.

However, faced with the prospect of bringing up a child in the US, I suddenly began to see the cracks in the veneer of the same America I had idealised and idolised for so many years.

I already had my misgivings about the propensity toward gun violence in American communities, including in Boston, where my partner – my sons' father - attended school with kids who had brought in concealed weapons for a boastful playground show-and-tell.

However, I was left completely cold by the experience of pregnancy and childbirth - not my own, as being insured meant I had access to the best pre- and postnatal care the American health industry can buy. This was particularly lucky because it was a high-risk pregnancy, and in the end an emergency C-section, all shepherded by an obstetrician who preferred Prada shoes, and whom I never once saw wearing the same pair.

The total bill for a nine-day stay in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit of Brigham and Women's Hospital: $US100,000. No wonder health insurance premiums long ago spiralled out of control.

For those uninsured women, overwhelmingly African-American and poor, turning up on the day they went into labour without having been offered a single prenatal check could have catastrophic consequences post-birth, undetected maternal diabetes being the least among them.

Then there was the comportment of my employer, a small but well-funded firm whose CEO suggested that his offer of 10 weeks unpaid maternity leave was generous. Given he had no obligation under American law to offer more than two, he was - in one pathetic sense - right.

The same employer had boasted similar largesse by offering me three weeks' annual leave, rather than the one week he was offering less experienced staff. US law does not require employers to grant any vacation or holidays, although it's more common to meet people who are gifted a couple of weeks by more "generous" bosses. My father in law, who is nearing retirement, has only recently graduated to four weeks' leave a year, after 40+ years of working life.

Land of opportunity, depending on where you start in life

We've been reading for some time now that the gap between the "haves" and "have nots" in America is widening.

According to data released in December, the wealthiest – the top 1 per cent - earn an average of $US1.3 million a year.

This is more than three times as much as the 1980s, when the rich "only" made $US428,000, on average, the data compiled by the Equality of Opportunity Project found.

Meanwhile, the bottom 50 per cent of the American population earned an average of $US16,000 in pre-tax income in 1980. That hasn't changed in over three decades.

As it seems that living the American Dream, the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved, is also getting harder to do.

Millennials only have a 50 per cent likelihood of earning more money than their parents did - a big change from the 1940s, when almost everyone in America grew up to be better off financially than their parents.

This wealth inequality has real and quantifiable health implications, the report found, with the richest Americans gaining about three years in longevity from 2001 to 2014, while the poorest Americans experienced no gains.

And life expectancy varied substantially across cities, especially for low-income people, the report found. For the poorest Americans, life expectancies were six years higher in New York than in Detroit. For the richest Americans, the difference is less than one year.

'Rugged individualism', or everyone for themselves?

All of this is to point out that even before Donald Trump took over the presidency, the US was becoming a hard place for me to love. With such treatment of its own, America seemed like a cruel place that would likely only become crueller as its fortunes waned amid an international economic downturn.

His triumph reinforces this view, and suggests that rather than spurning a tendency towards "rugged individualism", Americans will continue to embrace it to their own detriment.

Many Americans hold that theirs is a land of opportunity, where anyone can grow rich off their own back and even, as Trump has proven, one day become president. The reality is a land of gross inopportunity and, with few exceptions, where you end up depends completely upon where you start in life.

I have always believed that if a person is lying helpless in the street, you stop and see if you can help before moving on. I believe that in Australia I would not be alone in this and that we help our own, no matter their perceived value to us personally.

In America, I usually felt that if I fell, the crowd would march over the top of me, with barely a glance back over its shoulder.

One of my most myth-busting experiences during a long life of travel was lining up at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport to enter the Islamic Republic in July, 2007 and looking around to see dozens of Iranian-Americans proudly brandishing their dual passports, seemingly unafraid of retribution by some pretty fearsome looking border guards.

This week, Trump sullied that image by throwing into question the status of dual passport holders in the US for the foreseeable future. It is, perhaps, an indication of where the real problem lies, and a portent of where things are headed.

Both my kids have American citizenship, and once I hoped they might visit the United States to test their own potential.

However, these days the prospect of a ban on dual passport holders extending to them worries me less than it once would have.

Freya Petersen, a producer for News Digital, lived and worked in Boston and New York between 2007 and 2011.