Social States: The Myth of the Atlantic Divide
Peter Baldwin | Prospect Magazine | May 2009
Everyone is familiar with the idea of a "wide
Atlantic" and the alleged fundamental differences between the US and Europe:
the Americans believe in the unbridled free market, while the Europeans only
accept it against their will and try to curtail its excesses; true social
policy exists only in Europe; lack of universal health insurance in the US
causes many to die young or spend the majority of their lives in hospitals; the
crime rate in the US in clearly higher. Nevertheless, how true are these
The schism between rich and poor is greater in the US than it is in Europe, when simply drawn from income figures. But when one considers the total assets of citizens, European countries also display a clear concentration of wealth. Due to the large economic gap in the US, poverty is relatively higher. In absolute numbers, however, another reality comes to light. When poverty is defined as roughly half of the average income of the six EU founding member states, in 2000 numerous EU countries had more people living in poverty than US. And this is not only true for the Mediterranean countries, but also for Great Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden. Another misconception: the American social state appears underdeveloped in comparison with those in Europe. However, this only holds true when compared to the social systems of Germany or Sweden. Otherwise, in this respect the US performs much better than most believe. Nevertheless, it is important that universal health care becomes law under the new US administration. One lasting shame of the American health care system is the high child death rate, which is higher than any country in Europe. One must also compare other social services, for example public retirement funds or diverse forms of unemployment benefits, and when one also takes into account state aid for the private sector (such as tax incentives), then the public social services in the US seem to fall exactly in the middle of the European spectrum.
At a closer glance many of the supposed differences emerge as mere myth. If there is one aspect that fundamentally divides the societies on either side of the Atlantic, it is the continuity of an ethnic lower class in the US, which is composed almost exclusively of African Americans. Despite the successful integration of many immigrant groups, the tragic vestiges of slavery are still visible in the urban ghettos of US cities today. If one takes African Americans out of the crime rate statistics, the US again lands in the center of the European spectrum, and the death rate is lower than that of Switzerland, Finland or Sweden. Similar number games would have a comparable effect on child poverty. In the end, it is not differing ideologies which separate the US and Europe, but rather the difficult and lasting legacy of slavery and social discrimination. Whether the election of the new US President can bring a decisive turning point in this regard is yet to be seen.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "A Narrower Atlantic" published here by Prospect Magazine