Portrait of a Civilized Country

With another tax season thankfully behind us, I can look around and imagine what America might look like if it spent its money wisely. I’ve been living in Scotland now for a year and a half – two and a half if you count the year abroad I spent here during college. Seeing what people take for granted here has taught me a lot about what it means to be a civilized country, and reminds me just how far America has to go. Scotland is no progressive utopia, and it has a long way to go itself – but the basic services that all people enjoy here might be a revelation to Americans caught in the daily grind, and those who are working for change.

Everyone has free healthcare. It’s got limitations, but when people can go to the doctor for free at the earliest sign of illness, it saves a lot of emergency-room visits. People complain about having to pay for dental care and prescriptions, but it’s less than $15 to see a dentist or get a three-month supply of medicine, with a discount if you’re low-income. Birth control and emergency contraception are free, and many cities have programs to distribute free condoms.

Minimum wage is over $9 an hour if you’re over 21, a bit less if you’re younger. Even after taxes, minimum take-home pay for adults is about $6 an hour. Students and apprentices don’t have to pay taxes, and the tax rates are on a sliding scale. It’s not a perfect system – for instance, employers are only required to give 20-minute lunch breaks – but they’re also required to offer flexible working schedules wherever possible.

Employers are required to give all workers at least four weeks paid vacation time, and paid sick leave for at least 28 weeks. Many employers offer sick leave for up to a year after five years’ service, and a person’s vacation time and other benefits continue to accrue. A doctor’s note is not required unless an employee will be absent for more than a week. Also, employers are required to give workers time off for doctors’ appointments, physical therapy, and diagnostic tests. Parents are entitled to up to four weeks unpaid leave per year to care for a sick child under the age of five (eighteen if disabled), and there is no time limit for ‘compassionate leave’ to care for a parent, child, spouse, or other dependent.

Pregnant women are entitled to six months of paid maternity leave, even when there is a stillbirth or miscarriage. Two weeks of leave are compulsory after a baby is born, and fathers can take up to two weeks paid paternity leave. In 2010, the maternity leave entitlement will increase to a full year, and there will be the option for the father to take six months paid leave if the mother returns to work. Maternity and paternity leave can also be taken for adoption, including adoption by gay or lesbian couples. Additionally, all new parents are entitled to a voucher for £250 ($500) to start a trust fund for their child, £500 ($1000) if they are low-income.

These trusts funds will be useful in paying for newly-introduced university fees, which there’s been a lot of fuss about lately. ‘Home’ fees (the British equivalent of in-state tuition) amount to a few thousand dollars for a full undergraduate education. It’s a bit more expensive for an English or a European Union resident studying in Scotland (and vice-versa), but truly a pittance compared to the soaring costs of education in the US. British universities are making up for governmental funding cuts by charging overseas students twice or three times what local students pay, but I still saved $10,000 when I did my junior year abroad.

Still, fees have increased the necessity of student loans, that scourge of American young people. But even loans are a more civilized phenomenon in the UK. All student loans are distributed by the government, and payments are automatically deducted from graduates’ pay checks. No aggressive student loan companies to deal with, no constant harassment if you can’t pay, no collection agencies or threats or permanent damage to credit ratings – because they only take payments out once you’re making £15,000 a year, about $30,000. If you’re struggling and don’t manage to earn that much, your loans simply accrue interest at inflation levels and are wiped out in 25 years. So if you want to spend the rest of your life making art or working at low-budget nonprofits, you don’t have to worry about your student debt.

On top of all these perks for individuals, there are many things that everyone benefits from. There are Europe-wide targets for recycling and emissions. There is excellent public transport, but in most cities people walk. There are pedestrian zones and bike lanes and plentiful green spaces where people usually clean up after their dogs. If you live in a flat, you can get a free ‘allotment’ of land to indulge your gardening habit. There are free museums and art galleries, and plenty of free shows and open days at theatres and tourist attractions. It’s also safe to walk home at night – even in the ‘rough’ areas, there is no danger of being shot accidentally, because guns are illegal.

Scotland is by no means perfect, but it’s a good example of what reasonable policies that enhance people’s lives might look like.

1 Comment

  1. Walton
    14 August 2007

    This is a very good piece that needs to be more widely read, both by Scots and people in other countries. It shows that, massive social change and revolution aside, it is possible to create a relatively humane and just society, and that it is important to continue to pressurise the state to take a progressive role.

    Though I believe allotments typically cost about £22 per year to rent.

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