What if I was born in America?

21:42, Mar 18 2012

I've been playing this game with myself recently, projecting how my life might have been different had I been born in America.

My father was a teacher, spending a long stint as a deputy headmaster at a large private boys' school in Otahuhu in Auckland, followed up with a decade as a headmaster at a well-regarded boys' private prep school in Havelock North.

My mother had the horrible job of looking after four children born within seven years. Having children in this country is much more expensive than it is in New Zealand. Without health insurance the birth alone costs around $10,000.

Private school headmasters in the USA is compensated at a much higher rate than their New Zealand equivalents. So this could have worked handsomely in our family's favour. But the private school headmaster in the USA is considered to be more of an executive, and the jobs are comparatively scarce and harder to get to. 

If my father never became a headmaster, the road might have been more perilous as a teacher. The OECD says that the American teacher works more teaching hours than any other country, on a pay scale that increases at a slower rate than many other places. The profession has a high rate of burnout here and teachers face demoralising budget cuts across the country.

So who knows if my father would have found the same income security and job satisfaction that he did? Or maybe, faced with the demands of providing for a family in a country without the same safety nets,he might have chosen a more lucrative field that he was not so passionate about.

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So there's less certainty, here. Which puts more importance on to where we were physically raised. I spent the first seven years of my life in Otahuhu, a suburb of our country's largest city with its own problems with crime and gangs. The closest American equivalent would be Harlem or Compton, but that's probably not a fair comparison.

I moved to Havelock North when I was seven and lived there until I was 17. It is as prosperous as it is largely because of its natural resources and its proximities to Wellington and Auckland, but in American terms it could really be small town X, situated anywhere between Oregon and North Carolina that could support vineyards.

I wonder too, whether in this alternate reality my parents would have still been able to send their four children to private schools, which over here have exorbitant tuition costs. Private schools are also more exclusive in the USA. We might've been collectively thrown into the large public schools system and in the wrong circumstances, slipped through the cracks.

So already, by the time I'm 17, in this alternative American reality there are several greyer areas and risks, and I would've had to work much harder than I did, in order to overcome potential geographic and economic disadvantages.

Universities are much more hierarchical in the USA: there're the Ivy Leagues, a level of more elite private and state schools, the large party schools, the tech schools, community colleges, and so on. I didn't work that hard in my last year at school, because in retrospect I knew that I only had to limp over a certain marker and I would have automatic entry into whatever Bachelor of Arts program I fancied. New Zealand's five major universities have different strengths and emphases, but they're considered to be of the same grade and quality.

If I didn't work harder in the USA, and get into a better school, this would then harm my chances in the job market. I'd probably be repaying a much steeper student loan too, upon graduation. American tertiary education is exponentially more expensive, I know this from experience. I worked out recently that I could fund my child to live and study and travel to New Zealand for their entire undergraduate education for about the same price as a single year at a private American school.

I also had two surgeries when I was 17, which would have placed a much harder financial burden on my parents. But we've already tackled health insurance.

Who knows where I would then be upon graduation? Would I have been so financially burdened that further postgraduate study would've been completely out of the question? Would I have surrendered myself at this point to the American predilection for spending considerably beyond my means? Given the smaller percentage of Americans that have a passport, would I have still travelled as I did? It would probably be just as unrealistic in either world for me to be a homeowner by the time I was 27, but might I have given into the flood of cheap mortgages and now be facing foreclosure?

A little bit of fantasy projection for you today, but I think it raises a good point. The potential for geographic, economic and systemic disadvantage grows disproportionately as you move down the totem pole of privilege in the US. In New Zealand, this is definitely not so pronounced. We're a little more egalitarian by design. 

So how might your life have been different?         

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