The American economy has developed the capacity to produce more goods than its people can possibly use. In the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and the rest of the first world, scarcity is a thing of the past for the first time in history.
“Nunca faltas por nada.” You never lack anything. That’s how an American woman described the U.S. to my wife, Milagros. This American woman and her Peruvian husband raised their family in Peru, as we plan to. Milagros wanted me to explain what she meant. I told her to wait and see.
I knew more or less what to expect. She wouldn’t believe the size of the houses or a Walmart, the number and newness of the cars, the variety in all things (e.g., soda flavors or beer). But there were also things I didn’t expect, things I had difficulty explaining to a Peruvian. This is a list of curious phenomena of abundance economics.
Milagros’ first looks at the America she heard so much about were St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that statistically rank among America’s most dangerous. So I had to describe the security situation. I tried to explain how to recognize bad neighborhoods. But to a Peruvian, they don’t look all that bad in the early morning. Some houses are big and historic. You have to be American to know the signs.
What did I tell her? Abandoned houses. Boarded up windows on empty houses, and empty commercial buildings on the avenues. Think about that, from the perspective of a Latin American. Abandoned houses. A building, an expensive manufactured good, that has been abandoned. It’s an unbelievable idea.
In Latin America, the poor neighborhoods are shantytowns. In Peru, they’re known as “pueblos jovenes” (young towns) because they were built recently. Destitute people with no place to live acquire the raw materials, stake out some land several miles away from the city (or on a steep mountainside) and build a rudimentary shelter. It’s completely informal and “extralegal.” In time the area gets electricity and water. The government eventually comes in and formalizes the district.
In Latin America, there is a shortage in housing. There is not enough housing to shelter all the people, as opposed to the U.S., where there is a surplus. Go figure why Americans expect home prices to go up.
I haven’t had health insurance since 2006, and Milagros was pregnant. Upon arriving, I had to line up a hospital and OB services. Technically unemployed, I applied for Medicaid and food stamps. I explained the concept of welfare to Milagros. My explanation was very similar to the Wikipedia entry:
Welfare is the provision of a minimal level of well-being and social support for all citizens … In most developed countries, welfare is largely provided by the government.
Milagros said that if they gave welfare benefits in Peru, nobody would work. I told her there is significant criticism of the welfare state in America from the political right. I told her it was much worse when I was a kid, causing the government to enact welfare reform in the 90s, and that it’s becoming a national issue again. Specifically food stamps (EBT cards) are getting too easy to get. I was denied, but a Michigan lottery woman gained national fame when she was found to be using her food benefits from the state.
While I was denied food stamps, Milagros was approved for emergency Medicaid health insurance. We had the baby in a modern hospital with full prenatal care, epidural anesthesia, two nights’ hospital stay and more. I didn’t pay one dollar to the hospital.
Milagros wants to work. She’s a registered nurse in Peru, but to become a RN in America requires an English test I’m not sure she’d pass yet. So I thought, what do most women do who don’t speak English? I looked into cleaning services, since she’s willing to clean residences or offices. All the employers I talked to require their employees have a car.
Think about that in terms of Latin America. To be an empleada, to scrub toilets, you have to have a car. Again, it’s almost unbelievable.
In the U.S. you could cut grass. You could be a garbageman. You could work in any of the lowest-paying, menial jobs in the country, and you will be able to buy a car. In Latin America, unless you’re a taxi driver, a car is a status symbol. Watch Colombian film, El Carro, on YouTube.
For the first time in the history of the world, poor people are fat. In fact, poverty is a major indicator and risk factor for obesity. Unbelievable.
I told Milagros about the overweight people she would see here. But how do you explain why the poor are more likely to be overweight. In a society where there is more food than anybody can eat, nobody goes hungry. In a world like that, who is likely to be fat? The uneducated, the ignorant – those who don’t know or care what kinds of foods make healthy bodies.
Peru and Colombia are hotbeds for stunted growth and malnutrition. Not everybody has enough food. In the American economy of abundance, we’re now focusing on nutritional education and discipline in circumstances where there is no limit to calorie consumption.
Milagros and I got a room in a friend’s house. We put the word out that we needed a bed, and a family friend gave us one. Not sold, gave. Not only a bed, but a giant mattress at least two feet thick, with the box spring. It stood four feet high with no bed frame, it was the softest bed she has ever slept on, and it was the only free bed she ever received. I explained to her that in the American economy of abundance, free space is more valuable than things. The kicker is the donator is by no means rich. She is a resident of St. Ann, works as a bartender and is married to a plumber.
Milagros was in labor for 36 hours before the baby was born. I ran several errands between the house and hospital. On one trip I had to buy a car seat to take the kid home. En route to Walmart, I saw a free car seat set out in front of a house for anybody to pick up. It’s used, but only temporary. And impressive for someone from a country where mothers take their babies on motorcycles.
Education compels many Latin Americans to raise their children in America. “Land of opportunity” dreams probably do as well. But the main reason millions of Latin Americans emigrate to the U.S. is the buying power. The amount of stuff they can acquire. This American economy of abundance.
Interesting insight. It also helps explain why immigrants do so well in the US. I hope you both are doing well and that our paths cross again soon.
You didn’t mention the number one most obvious way to spot a bad neighborhood, which I have explained to my fiancée.
Poor people have a lot of cheap, bad food but good food is expensive. Fat poor people are still quite malnourished.
Some of downsides to the abundance:
1) The stress of acquiring and maintaining abundance
2) Loss off community/family cohesiveness due to individuals following economic opportunity across the country.
The latinos lose their family relationships over time just like the gringos do.
@ Jim – I did mention the #1 way to spot the bad neighborhoods, but not in this article! On your other point, it would depend on your definition of malnourishment. If using the common definition of lacking nutrients, then obese people are NOT malnourished. Nutrients include fats, carbohydrates, and protein. They clearly get way too much of all three.
@Steve – There are MANY arguments against choosing to live in the American economy of abundance, including those you mentioned. I’d add that the main reason you see people like you, me, and everybody interested in a blog titled “Expat Chronicles,” is that all this stuff isn’t necessary to be happy.
Good ole st ann, brings back memories. I used to pop into acapulcos mex restaurant on st charles rock road. Damn now I’m starting to miss “missourah”.
One difference I’ve noticed between myself and people born and raised in mexico is I often don’t finish all of the food on my plate when I eat. When I’ve done that in my travels to mexico people look at me funny and wonder if there’s something wrong with me.
Protein fat and the less desirable carbs are MACRONUTRIENTS. MICROnutrients are all the vitamins minerals etc which affect you’re body’s hormonal system. An imbalance in this area can lead to obesity etc.
Peru may have a nutrition problem (the country has a LOT of desert in it) but Colombia never has had. People here eat a lot of starchy foods that takes the calcium out their bones, which is why I think they are so short.
Also, is there really such a thing as too much protein? After a certain point it just gets shit out… impossible to store protein as fat… but if you go into an American supermarket most of what passes for protein has a lot of carbs in it…
“Consumption …the new american pastime!” ~ George Carlin