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Economic refugees: Americans living abroad for financial survival

VIENNA, Austria — As I stood on a street corner here not long ago, I noticed the woman standing beside me — clearly Muslim, given her scarf, and probably Turkish, given her coat. I imagined arrows over our heads labeling me an American and her a Turk and the preconceptions those labels might trigger.

What might not come immediately to mind is something I assume to be true: We’re both economic refugees.

My husband, 61, and I, 57, have lived in Vienna since August, but not as some late midlife lark. We’re here for financial survival.

More than a year ago, my husband was laid off without warning from an excellent job. Initially, we were stunned but optimistic. A labor lawyer negotiated a moderate severance package, and given my husband’s advanced degree and résumé, we assumed he would quickly find work.

But eight months and numerous job applications later, he hadn’t.

Statistics tell an incomplete story
According to Labor Department statistics recently cited by Sharon Schmickle, college-educated Americans enjoy substantially lower unemployment rates than less-educated Americans. For 2009, the national rate for Americans with at least a B.A. was 4.7 percent; in Nov. 2010, 5.1. In fact, Minnesota, where we lived for 20 years; Virginia, where we lived before coming to Vienna; and Maryland, home of my husband’s former employer, have consistently maintained even lower unemployment rates for this population.

But the statistics tell an incomplete and inaccurate story.

I was working but couldn’t support my husband, our teen-age son, and myself on my adjunct faculty wages at a state college, a contract job with no benefits. When my husband began receiving an unemployment check, we realized our income was inadequate to cover our monthly bills.

When the job offer from Vienna arrived, we were no longer naïve. We realized that given my husband’s age and length of unemployment, we faced a potentially grim future in the United States.

Now instead of teaching English and American culture to immigrants, I’m learning German; instead of writing about science for American readers, my husband is writing for an international institution, and instead of putting our money into the U.S. economy, we’re spending it in Europe.

In addition, our oldest son, 29, lives in France and is becoming a French citizen because he couldn’t afford American health insurance for his family.

No longer in the unemployment statistics
Here’s the statistical rub: Three of the five college-educated adults in our immediate family have moved to Europe for economic survival, so we are no longer included in the unemployment or medically uninsured statistics.

I’ve met other Americans here in the same situation, and there are probably thousands like us around the world.

Our pre-unemployment plan was to work as long as we are able. We’re healthy, we enjoy working and we have one last child to help with college expenses. If that plan had worked, we would have had at least 10 more years of paying into Social Security and Medicare and saving for retirement.

Now, depending on whether my husband’s one-year contract is extended or if I find a job that can support us here or in the U.S., we might need to draw on my husband’s Social Security as soon as next year. Instead of putting money into the public coffers, we will be taking it out.

When I was teaching, I realized that for the vast majority of immigrants the American Dream begins in failure. Most people, regardless of where they are born, don’t emigrate unless their countries fail to provide them what they want or need, be it freedom, education, safety, or economic opportunity and stability. It’s a painful choice to leave family, friends, possessions, reputation and a sense of belonging behind.

That was certainly true for my husband’s and my forebears, who left Europe more than 100 years ago for the mere promise of opportunity that America held. Despite the hardship of homesteading in the Dakota Territory and eking out a living from the land, my great-grandparents stayed; to my knowledge, no one in either of our families returned to Europe. They all became Americans.
The usual immigrant trajectory
Our families followed the usual trajectory of the times: Through hard work, perseverance and education, lives improved. Our fathers both began with very little and made substantial successes of themselves. Ours has been a typical American immigrant story. Until now.
My relatives who arrived at Ellis Island with a solitary trunk could not have foreseen a time when the trip across the Atlantic would be made in reverse by later generations. Until a few months ago, neither could I.

I’m reading a lot of European history, which is filled with accounts of once-great countries and empires that failed. In most if not all cases, failure occurred at least partly because of the selfishness and greed of the ruling class and the ignorance, exploitation and manipulation of the masses. It’s impossible to read that history and not worry about the United States.

I watch from Austria as members of the American middle class vote for the very people who work against them, as columnists engage in inane discussions about the educated “elite,” as ignorance is celebrated and sophisticated discourse disparaged, as scientific illiteracy is applauded, as education test scores continue to be a national embarrassment.

I notice as the few remaining unions are vilified and “contract” jobs become commonplace, as more and more Americans line up at food shelves and try to find shelter after losing their jobs and, too often, their homes.
I listen as politicians and citizens who can’t — or won’t — articulate the facts about health-insurance reform attack policies that had they been in place two years ago might have meant my son’s family could have remained in the U.S.

And, sadly, I see cynical elected officials tainted by huge anonymous corporate contributions who seem to think, even when so many Americans are suffering, that there will be fewer political consequences if they reward the rich and treat the unemployed and middle class as pawns.

Circumstances should concern all Americans
My family’s absence from the U.S. doesn’t matter to anyone but us and those who love us, but the circumstances that led to our absence should concern all Americans.

I’ve now lived in Austria for more than five months, but I’m not an Austrian, and I don’t want to become one.

I’m an American who is struggling to hold on to my beliefs that in the United States every individual matters and that fairness is an American ideal, that hard work pays off, that compassion has a role in enlightened government. I want to believe that some semblance of the American Dream remains, not just for those people pouring in from war-torn, chaotic, and economically-devastated countries, but for those of us who are fourth, fifth or sixth generation Americans.

Vienna is a beautiful city, and we’re lucky we landed here, but it’s not where we want to stay. I think of that woman on the street corner, and I’ve no doubt she yearns for home as much as I do. I wonder who will be able to return home first — the Turk or the American?

Misti Snow is a former Star Tribune reporter and editor.

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Comments (7)

You speak for so many and tell it so well. I can only hope this is but a prelude to an evolving series, as your words define the greater journey...a journal, a book; wherever it takes you. Thank you.

I don't like to be critical of this article, because I tend to agree with many of the sentiments in it, but this seems entirely anecdotal, with a picture of life in Europe colored by some kind of nostalgia that blinds the author to many of the problems.

First, opportunity: Egypt has been in the headlines the last several days for, among other things, its disaffected youths that can't find work. But in many cases, Europe is no better. The unemployment rate for under-30's in Spain is astronomical, with most good jobs held by older people that are essentially impossible to fire.

Germany (I cannot speak about Austria), on the surface, does a good job of mixing social equity with economic development, but it also has a large immigrant subculture that, for a variety of reasons, has never been fully welcome into mainstream society. Life is good for a native-born German, but Turkish immigrants, even ones that have been there for several generations by now, do not have the same opportunities or freedoms. France suffers from many of the same problems - disaffected Muslim immigrants populate the suburbs of big cities, outside normal society, with very high unemployment rates.

Italy suffers from a fundamentally uncompetitive economy, rife with corruption.

Russia is aging rapidly and has a public health disaster looming on the horizon, not to mention its own problems with its Muslim minorities.

I say all of this not to paint Europe as an unlivable hellhole, because it is not, but only to point out that every country suffers from its own unique challenges. The US is included - God knows we have our own problems - but we still have many things going for us. Demography, because of our inclusive attitude toward immigration, is on our side, for instance. Our education system still attracts the best students and teachers from around the world. We still have many innovative companies and more than our share of natural resources.

Many of the perceived declines in our society that you highlight are, unfortunately, out of our control - subject to forces of globalization that even the most powerful economy in the world is incapable of resisting.

To paint a picture that the tide of 19th century immigration is reversing in any meaningful way is dishonest.

Reading this story made me sad for many reasons, not the least of which is talking of the demise of the immigrant ideal of leaving the country better for your children than you had it, so their lives can be better than yours was. Sadly, that idea seems to have disappeared. And the incessant chasing of quarterly profits at any cost has ruined our businesses and labor force - nobody cares about the long-term well-being of the company anymore. That lack of concern is a big reason why we are no longer competitive in the world.

Our ancestors, who arrived as immigrants, worked very hard to realize the American Dream. It's too bad that opportunity is being denied our children and grandchildren, due mostly to greed.

I appreciate the perspective, but you are probably being way too optimistic.
The Bush Presidency should mark the point at which our decline began in earnest. I say should because the right in this country has been very successful at rewriting history. Ronald Reagan is a good example of that. No doubt Obama will have to take the blame. He already is to some extent. The Supreme Courts Citizens United decision made it official. Money now trumps all. This country will continue to be a great place for a select few, the rest of us are in for a rough ride.
The right is gearing up for the final assualt on Unions. Public employees are the last hold out and they are being demonized as we speak. They've done a pretty good job on teachers and their unions. With Manufacturing gone these are the last remaining jobs that provide a living wage and decent benifits. When they are gone there won't be much left. Service jobs that pay enough to eek out an existance, with no chance for upward mobility will become the norm.
What will remain is a very well armed third world nation. Get used to European life, join your son in France, do what all immigrants do, bring as much as you can of your old life with you and replicate the rest.

Good luck.

Nathan you are descibing a country that longer exists. Upward mobility, or opportunity if you like, in the US lags behind France, Germany, Sweden, Canada,Finland,Norway and Denmark. In that order.
We no longer attract the best and the brightest. New restrictions imposed after 911 made it more difficult to study in the US. Open hostility toward foriegners and immigrants has taken its toll as well. The Eastern elites still attract their fair share, but our time has passed. India now trains some of the best Technical students in the world. Students have a lot of choices and increasingly the US in not one of them.
Other countries may have their issues, but none like ours. We have the worst safety net in the industrialized world. No one in any other industrialize county in the world loses everything they own due to illness. No one anywhere in the world loses their entire lifes savings trying to pay for health care. Here in the US 1 million, people a year file bankruptcy because of medical bills. For all the troubles the young may have finding work, that is one thing they will not have to worry about.

Thank you for your thoughtful article. I moved to Europe 4 years ago to work on a graduate degree. I moved here partly because I wanted a Masters in European Studies but the other reason is I could not afford a Masters in the US. I think my Masters cost about $8000 a far cry from what I would pay in the Washington, DC area where I was living.

I also received full health care benefits as a student. Before returning to school, I was self-employed for 13 years and could only afford catastrophic coverage. After completing my Masters, I continued to pursue a PhD here in Belgium. Again, at a fraction of the cost of a PhD in the US.

I think every country has their pluses and minuses and their priorities. I live in a country with health care and public transit for their citizens. The US spends $7 billion a month on a war in Afghanistan. Each country makes choices and each country has problems and debt. Maybe the lesson is we all have to be prepared to move where ever we can find work and live, regardless of the country.

I would advise any young college graduate who is having trouble finding a job to look overseas, starting by teaching English in Asia or the Middle East or Latin America (Europe is nearly impossible for someone from outside the European Union) and using the contacts gained there to establish a career in their chosen field.