Friday, September 28, 2012

I thought I would be middle class... but I think I was wrong

What is a social safety net? In other countries, people subscribe to the concept of domestic social programs because they  believe that society benefits when its weakest members are taken care of in the most basic way. They pay taxes knowing they, too, will benefit from the system.

For four and a half years I worked as a researcher at a Dutch University. At the time of my last paycheck in 2008, I made 2,558 Euros ($3,990) per month*. I paid 24% of my 2558 Euros in taxes, 0.05% in accident and life insurance, 7.9% in pension and 1.4% in social insurance. I paid 166.97 Euros in health insurance for my family per month, which was refunded in full by my employer. That’s right. I paid no health insurance costs. 

To be perfectly honest, I gladly paid a high tax rate because the benefits were enormous.

As a full-time University professor in Connecticut my gross paycheck is roughly the same. (As a side note, it would be illegal in the NL for me to be paid the same rate after finishing my degree as I was paid before, but... alas... in the competitive American system this is the salary I make). 

 I spend 1.1% on life and accident insurance and 18.8% in health insurance and on a tax-free health spending account. 12.6% of my paycheck goes to a tax-free childcare account. In addition, 3.8% of my income goes to social security and 5.0% into a retirement fund. In contrast to the Dutch system, I pay few taxes in the US, a mere 2.2% of my gross income and all at the state level. No federal tax is withheld from my paycheck. In the Netherlands, I kept 66% of my earnings; in the US I keep 56%. I make the same, but I have far less to show for it.

What were the benefits of my 24% Dutch tax rate? 
My family never paid deductibles, out of pocket costs, or from a health savings account for any medical treatment, doctor’s visits, or prescriptions, including all costs associated with the birth of two children. 
I didn’t need a child dependent care account because the cost of childcare, subsidized by a government that recognizes the benefit of women working, was not as exorbitant as in the US. In Connecticut, daycare for a toddler is $300 per week. I have two kids. Before they were both school-aged, their care at the full rate would have exceeded my salary. But we're lucky. Our family income was so low that our daycare was subsidized by a state-level program. For many women the option of continuing to work after having kids is not really a choice. 

I had four months of fully paid leave with each pregnancy. After my kids were born a "mother's helper" came to our house for 5-7 hours a day for a week. Paid fully by our insurance, she checked the health of the baby and mother, helped troubleshoot breastfeeding, cleaned the house, took care of older siblings, made dinner and went grocery shopping for me. Yes, it was a nice benefit for a new mom, but it was also (thinking about a society here) a GREAT way to insure new mothers are educated about nursing, care, and nutrition. It also allows a level of care for both mother and child in the critical first week of the baby's life. 

Parents of young children also received small quarterly child assistance payments in the Netherlands of a few hundred Euros. 

I also had a “thirteenth” paycheck, split between a vacation bonus (to spend during my six weeks of paid vacation per year) and an end of year bonus. 

In the Netherlands I enjoyed a healthcare system with a lower infant mortality rate than our own. There was inexpensive, convenient public transportation that allowed me to live car-free. If my children had grown up in the Netherlands and attended University, the government would cover the costs and provide a living stipend. In contrast, I meet US students every day who take out massive loans for an education with few guarantees of employment. My husband and I cannot afford to save for our children’s education.   

What do people who do pay taxes in the US get for it? (Remember, I don’t pay any federal taxes). A federal budget of 3.6 trillion dollars,roughly 20% of which is spent on defense. While not unimportant, would we be as safe if we spent 10%? Especially considering we spend five times as muchas the next-highest-spending country. In fact, we spend 200 billion more dollars than the nine next-highestspending countries combined. (Would it surprise you to learn that the defense industry spent 66 million dollars in lobbying in 2012?)

While we enjoy many social services in the US, our programs are skewed to benefit older Americans (SocialSecurity and Medicare make up 33% of the budget) as opposed to the poor. Medicaid,CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program), and our entire safety netcombined make up roughly 20.8% of the budget. Education makes up just 2% of the budget. Our social safety net includes child and earned-income tax credits, Supplemental Security Income forthe elderly and disabled, unemployment insurance, low-income family benefitslike food stamps, school lunch and breakfast programs, housing, child-care andenergy bill assistance, as well as benefits for abused and neglected kids. Am I wrong in thinking these things are a good idea? (Budget data here.)

America is the land of financial opportunity. For many, a solid middle-class existence has disappeared. It’s easy to blame others in our system, to say that it’s the fault of the poor, the uninsured, the jobless, and the uneducated. But I would argue that we fail to recognize that what separates “us” from the poor, the uninsured, the jobless, and the uneducated is quickly disappearing.

I did not become a college professor for the money. I did it because I wanted to teach and conduct research. I also thought it would mean a middle-class life. Was I wrong? 

On a balance sheet I can see how the countries compare, but there is something that cannot be captured by my calculations: the safety of a middle-class existence, which I have not felt since leaving the Netherlands.

What do you think?

Is the middle class disappearing in the US?

What's the answer?

*This is the conversion at the 2008 rate. It would be slightly different now, but it made sense to depict the figure in 2008 dollars. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Butterflies, Death, and Life

Cynthia Penn Maier was my sister-in-law.

She had chronic lymphocytic leukemia the entire time I knew her, but she hardly mentioned it. It was just something that happened in her life, it wasn't her life. And at times it seemed it was kept at bay. She would go through a rough patch and then be in remission for years at a time.

In our family, Cynthia was famous for being the person who always sent birthday and anniversary cards. She never failed. Her ability to get your card to you ON THE ACTUAL DAY was nothing short of uncanny. I would sometimes think she should be in charge of logistics for UPS (or a small country) because she was that good.

In fact, it was a birthday card that was the first indicator to us that something was wrong. We received James' card on the fifteenth of August like clockwork, but Willy's card was a little late for the 30th of August, his birthday. Only two weeks later.

I didn't think anything of it at first. I waited for him to come home from school and then we opened it together. Inside was an inscription from one of Cynthia's friends, saying she was helping Cynthia send her cards because she didn't feel up to it.

That's the kind of person she was. So giving. Still trying to get a card out to a five year old, despite what she was going through.

She died on Sunday, September 16th at the age of 54.

She worked as a microbiologist and called me her fellow "bug girl". She would say, "You like the big ones, and I like the little ones". So, more than anyone else in our family I associate her with insects.

We drove to Maryland on Friday to attend services. After the funeral we went to their house to visit with the family.

Right when I got out of the car I found this.

And of course it made me think of Cynthia. Something beautiful. Something ephemeral. You can see it's not a young butterfly. It's a little worn around the edges. Maybe it had a rough time, but it's no less beautiful.

It's not easy to find an insect that is no longer alive but not already destroyed by other insects. It's typically not long before the ants and other critters come in to haul off any bug in the wild. This is even more true of lepidoptera, the butterflies and moths. Their bodies are soft-- not as resilient as a beetle's hard shell for example-- and they just don't make it for long out in the world.

I've only found one other dead-but-not-ruined moth or butterfly in my life. It was a luna moth that I found in the summer of 1992 in North Carolina.

So it seemed even more amazing when my son Willy found this later in the day.

It was in a parking lot off a highway. Not exactly a nature reserve. Not really a place you'd expect to find a butterfly, but there it was.

Again, somehow gone but not destroyed.

I don't know if I can say what this "means", but I know what it means to me.

A reminder of a person who always listened. Really listened.
Who was even-keeled and kind.
Who was giving, thoughtful, and among many many things-- a lifetime of things-- never forgot a birthday.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Clockworks for your weekend

German clockhopper, ca 1895. A land exploration device. 

Clockwork Katydid, German, ca. 1895.

 Clockwasp, Dutch, ca. 1853, Defense clockwork.
 Dutch clockwasp, ca. 1845, guarding and defense. 
 Clockwork dragonfly, dutch, ca. 1830s. A service clockwork used for large and heavy jobs. 

 Clockwork wheel bug, German, ca. 1860s. Surveillance device. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Episodes 15 and 16

Episode 15

Episode 16

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Friday, September 14, 2012

THIRST: Episode 14

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Thursday, September 13, 2012

THIRST: Episode 13

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Whack-a-mole Though Control

So, I was discussing with a friend recently how what we think and do can impact us as individuals. I think we all can agree that doing "bad things" or maybe even unkind or uncharitable things is not what we strive for.

But what we were talking about is thinking unkind or uncharitable things.

Maybe it's about our friends and family, or maybe it's about that person at the intersection who barely stops at the stop sign while you're waiting with your five-year-old to cross the street and then they rush off with spinning wheels and blaring music while you grip your small child's hand more tightly and think to yourself, Why is this a**hole driving like a maniac in my neighborhood?

Yeah, so those kinds of thoughts.

We agreed that sometimes you can't help those kinds of thoughts. I could even argue that sometimes thinking those thoughts is a good venting strategy that helps you deal with life.

But what if those thoughts start to change the way you think about your friends and family. Or maybe you think unkind thoughts about yourself-- the way you look, or talk, or act, or write-- in a non-constructive way.

This friend used the analogy of whack-a-mole.

And I love it.

These thoughts pop up, and that's okay.

Maybe the best we can do is whack them down when we think them.

And maybe that will be enough.

Even for me as I encounter that guy driving like a maniac in my neighborhood.

What about you? Do you let those thoughts fly or try to contain them? What do you think are the merits of each method? 

Photo attribution to Tiger Girl via Flickr available under a creative commons license.

Check out the other Kindess Project Posts here and please do join in and add your own:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

THIRST: Episode 12

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Monday, September 10, 2012

THIRST: Episode 11

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Sunday, September 9, 2012

THIRST: Episode 10

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Saturday, September 8, 2012

THIRST: Episode 9

Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Friday, September 7, 2012

I would be remiss...

if I didn't mention the birthday of my younger son, Willy, on the blog! When your birthday is the first day of school, things fall through the cracks. :0)

We spread the celebration out for several days, and it was lots of fun. I cannot believe my youngest child is 5!

THIRST: Episode 8


Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Thursday, September 6, 2012

THIRST: Episode 7


Learn more about Project Dystopia Reboot here

Find the Playmobilization Tumblr of the whole story here

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

THIRST: Episode 6

Read more about Project Dystopia Reboot here.

Follow the whole story by clicking on the TUMBLR page.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THIRST: Episode 5

Read more about Project Dystopia Reboot here.

Follow the whole story by clicking on the TUMBLR page.

Monday, September 3, 2012

More clockwork creatures

 In my steampunk book, the British clockworks are all aquatic invertebrates. Here are some of them. 

Clockwork crab. British, ca. 1885. Sub aquatic large-capacity attack device. 

 I tweaked the Clocktopus a little. British nautical fleet, ca. 1870s.

 Here are two squids and both front and back view of a sea star. My scanner isn't large enough for the page, so I scanned twice and tried to merge them (hence the weird line).

 A clockwork nudibranch. This serves as an aquatic surveillance device.
A close-up of the squid.

They and their little invertebrate friends are all to be found on the TUMBLR.