On Taking Care of Each Other
I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with my Dutch friends about cultural differences between the Netherlands and the United States. The family I’m staying with here in Sassenheim spent four years living in my hometown in California, so they’re well-versed in our way of life on the other side of the Atlantic.
At dinner last night, talk inevitably turned to politics and the current administration. I explained that despite four attempts by the Republicans to repeal the law, the Affordable Care Act is still in place. We discussed the differences between our two countries’ political systems - here in the Netherlands, there are over eighteen political parties with seated representatives, compared to our paltry two - and how dismal the social safety net is in the United States, especially when compared to the robust protections here.
My Dutch friends know how expensive healthcare is in the U.S. and how little the government provides for the safety and wellbeing of residents there. Income inequality is much lower in the Netherlands, they explained, due to protections here that ensure a basic quality of life regardless of one’s ability to work. The system sounds excellent. Rates of homelessness and poverty are minuscule, relatively speaking, and there is a strong belief in universal healthcare across all political parties, from the ultra-conservatives to the Communists. To say that I wish that the U.S. government protected basic rights like this would be the understatement of the year.
I said something to that effect to my friends, and one looked at me and paused.
“Yes,” she said, “The government should provide for people in this way. But something that I miss about the U.S. is how people took care of each other. Here, because the government takes care of us, that doesn't happen as much.”
I was taken aback. I have long touted the social benefits of a strong governmental safety net, but I had never considered whether such a system would also have social costs.
My friend went on to explain that in her experience living in California, people took care of each other. Neighbors dropped off homemade gifts around the holidays, friends visited each other in the hospital, and anonymous donors sent checks to cover the school fees for kids whose families couldn’t afford to pay them. There’s a system of communal care based on reciprocity, because everyone knows that your misfortune today could be mine tomorrow. That doesn’t happen here, she said. Everyone knows that we have protections if disaster strikes, and so we don’t take care of each other outside the family.
She used the example of what happened in my neighborhood when the largest wildfire in California history loomed in the hills behind my family’s house. Everyone was knocking on each other’s doors, calling to check in, and ensuring that everyone was accounted for on my street. My mother and a couple other people physically pulled an elderly neighbor, who was fast asleep, out of her house as the flames leapt toward our houses. There were no officials there to evacuate us; we did it ourselves, and we made sure everyone was out and safe. In the Netherlands, she said, everyone would just run.
I’d never thought about it before, but she was right. Especially in my adopted home of Washington, DC, people really took care of each other. I was in countless message threads and Facebook groups centered around community care. If someone couldn’t pay rent, we chipped in; if an activist needed money for legal fees, we paid them; if someone was hurt, we set up a GoFundMe to pay for their medical bills. I hate that any of this was necessary in the first place; in a just world, no one would want for any of these basic, essential things. But that is not the world we live in, and in the gaping void torn open by capitalism and corruption, communities flourish. In spite of toxic, oppressive forces that try to isolate us, we take care of each other. I refuse to stop fighting for the protections that would render these networks of care less necessary, but I can celebrate their existence in the meantime.