The U.S.A. – A Country You Think You Know But Just Might Not

By Sabrina Völz

changed priorities aheadIn his first speech as Pres­i­dent-elect of the Unit­ed States, Sen­a­tor Barack Oba­ma uttered the famous words which became the sound­bite echoed across the world: “Change has come to Amer­i­ca.” It was and is a high­ly opti­mistic state­ment, a state­ment that seems pre­ma­ture in light of the Michael Brown shoot­ing and all that has fol­lowed since then. And I would be the first to admit that there is still much to be done in the areas of dis­crim­i­na­tion, insti­tu­tion­al racism – well, racism of all sorts – and race rela­tions in the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, the U.S. just might not be the coun­try that you think it is.

Change – mind-blow­ing change – has come to Amer­i­ca in the last two decades. 

I’ve been liv­ing in Ger­many now for over fif­teen years and have been teach­ing cours­es on the U.S. ever since. In the ear­ly days of my teach­ing at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg, I often was asked about Amer­i­can posi­tions on issues that puz­zled my stu­dents, issues such as the death penal­ty, patri­o­tism, the poor social net, cap­i­tal­ism, envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion, and gay rights, just to name a few. Although I did not per­son­al­ly agree with the posi­tion of cer­tain groups of Amer­i­cans on many of these issues, I tried to help my stu­dents under­stand their perspectives.

I am also the first to admit that the Unit­ed States is a large, diverse coun­try, so if you look hard enough, you can find exam­ples for what­ev­er posi­tion it is you want to take about the world’s old­est democ­ra­cy still in exis­tence today. Recent­ly, I have been encour­aged by sev­er­al emerg­ing trends.

Let’s take a look at the death penal­ty: Since 2000, sev­en states have abol­ished it: New Jer­sey and New York (2007), New Mex­i­co (2009), Illi­nois (2011), Con­necti­cut (2012), Mary­land (2013), and Nebras­ka (2015). Sev­en states! Twen­ty years ago, this abo­li­tion­ist move­ment would have been sim­ply unthink­able, as would have a 5–4 rul­ing of the Supreme Court to guar­an­tee the con­sti­tu­tion­al right to same-sex mar­riage in June of last year.

And since The Afford­able Care Act went into effect in 2014, all U.S. cit­i­zens have access to an afford­able, min­i­mum stan­dard health insur­ance. So take a look at the Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foundation’s video to see what the bill is all about.

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To date, 16 mil­lion pre­vi­ous­ly unin­sured peo­ple have gained access to cov­er­age. Before the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, four oth­er U.S. Pres­i­dents (Har­ry S. Tru­man, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clin­ton) went up against the deep-seat­ed Amer­i­can val­ue of self-reliance and tried – unsuc­cess­ful­ly – to estab­lish uni­ver­sal health care cov­er­age for Amer­i­cans. This insur­ance includes pre­ven­ta­tive care, hos­pi­tal cov­er­age as well as the same pre­mi­um for men and women. More­over, the law pre­vents denial or can­ce­la­tion of cov­er­age for pre-exist­ing con­di­tions and life­time dol­lar lim­its. So The Afford­able Care Act is tru­ly an his­toric achieve­ment. Let’s hope that the law is not repealed. Repub­li­cans have repeat­ed­ly tried to over­turn it and have promised to do so should they take the White House in the next election.

In addi­tion, legal­iz­ing the recre­ation­al use of mar­i­jua­na comes to mind when I think about recent shifts in pub­lic opin­ion. 24 states have already legal­ized pot for med­i­c­i­nal use, but 2012 brought about the legal­iza­tion of the recre­ation­al use of pot in Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton. In 2015, those states were joined by Ore­gon and Alas­ka. Oth­er states have ‘decrim­i­nal­ized’ or reduced the penal­ties for pos­ses­sion of mar­i­jua­na. In Mass­a­chu­setts, Cal­i­for­nia, and New York, for exam­ple, pos­ses­sion of up to one ounce of the drug will only land adults a mere $100 fine instead of time in jail. Amer­i­can pop­u­lar opin­ion has cer­tain­ly come a long way from Nan­cy Reagan’s “Just Say No” cam­paign. And there is cer­tain­ly more to come in 2016. For those inter­est­ed, the U.S.A. Today has a well-researched overview of the legal changes.

And final­ly, let’s take a look at new trends in the min­i­mum wage debate in the U.S. The nation­al min­i­mum wage is cur­rent­ly set at a mea­ger 7.25 dol­lars per hour (or rough­ly 6.44 Euros); in 2014, how­ev­er, sev­er­al U.S. cities – includ­ing San Fran­cis­co, Seat­tle, and Los Ange­les – vot­ed to grad­u­al­ly increase min­i­mum wage to 15 dol­lars an hour. Yes, 15 dol­lars per hour. While it does remain to be seen if changes to the min­i­mum wage on a city and state lev­el real­ly rep­re­sent a last­ing trend or not, it is def­i­nite­ly encour­ag­ing that 29 states now have a high­er min­i­mum wage than required by nation­al law.

Cer­tain­ly, not all Amer­i­cans sup­port all of these changes. In fact, many might find them quite fright­en­ing. How­ev­er, for me, change has indeed come to Amer­i­ca. And, for the most part, I like what I see.

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