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Economic refugees: Americans living abroad for financial survival

VIENNA, Austria — Over the past two centuries many Europeans came to America for economic opportunities. Now some families are reversing the journey — again to provide for their families.

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.