When my mother first came to the U.S. in 1955 on a boat from Switzerland, the U.S. was something of a promised land.
She wasn’t fleeing war or persecution. She came because a United Nations agency was sponsoring Europeans to go to the U.S.
America, with its open intrastate borders and its booming post-war economy, was hard to resist for a young woman looking to make her way in the world.
Coming to the U.S. from post-war Europe in the midst of reconstruction with the generous help of Uncle Sam was the opportunity of a lifetime.
And what a happy-go-lucky journey it was for her.
Mom came to New York and essentially walked into small jobs in midtown Manhattan. She worked first at a jeweler and then in art galleries.
She ended up dating a young French doctor and they would go to Harlem to take in the music scene at a time when few whites would venture much beyond 97th Street.
She eventually left New York for Paris only to come back to the U.S. in the 1960s and marry my father before leaving for Southeast Asia.
Jet travel was expanding quickly and the U.S. was still decades away from developing into the freelance entrepreneurial economy that it is now.
Health insurance premiums and retirement security were rarely mentioned as defined benefit plans protected the company men and their families.
Fast forward 20 years to 1984 when I came to the U.S. for college. The U.S. was still a beacon of promise. It was the age of Reagan and deregulation.
Health care costs were manageable, tuition at a prestigious New England enclave of higher learning ran my father $15,000 a year, and pension payments and Social Security could offer retirees a relatively high living standard beginning at age 62.
After graduating from college in 1988, with no school debt, I went back to Switzerland for three years before returning to the U.S. permanently.
Before I did, though, I recall a friend, a former McKinsey consultant, saying that that he preferred to stay in Switzerland.
Another friend, who had moved to Switzerland from the U.S. and chose to make his home in Switzerland as a doctor, wasn’t quite sure why I was returning to the U.S. (Perhaps I wasn’t quite sure myself, but that’s another story.)
Unlike me with a U.S. passport, my McKinsey man carried Canadian nationality and couldn’t work in the U.S. without getting a green card. Staying in the U.S. was nominally more problematic for him.
But then he mentioned health care costs. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Yet nearly 30 years have gone by and his prescient remark has stayed with me given the endless debate in Washington about how to deliver affordable health care.
I landed in New York in 1991 and made my way into the publishing field, which has offered me and my family more than enough to live a happy life.
But I was on my own without the security blanket of college. I was living off a modest salary, paying my own bills and moving on up, which meant having to worry about costs.
Those were the days when I filed 1040 EZ tax forms, days when I had no major health care expenses, no dependents and no life insurance premiums to worry about. Costs were low. I rarely carried even any credit card debt.
Until the mortgage, my daughter and caring for family came along. Then things changed.
More than 25 years after beginning my carrier, by some key metrics — life expectancy, health care, college costs, income inequality — the U.S. is clearly falling behind the more progressive European countries.
The contract between the U.S. government and its citizens seems frayed.
Yes, we all want to be safe, but are we better off protecting ourselves with affordable health insurance and automatic life insurance than by building walls?
America remains full of promise, and its power to unleash entrepreneurial and capital energies will always be more efficient than anything possible in Europe, a continent with dozens of nations squabbling over markets and resources.
Maybe I’m just getting older and now, at 50, protection looms larger in the rearview mirror than it ever has.
Certainly, the U.S. remains a gilded destination for people with nothing to lose or for people who want to blaze their own trail.
But I’m curious to see if my friends in Europe - sheltered, protected and insured - will opt to send their children to the U.S. for school or even an eventual career here. And I'm curious about what it says about the U.S. if they don’t.
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Writer Cyril Tuohy has covered the financial services industry for more than 15 years. Cyril may be reached at email@example.com.
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