I try very hard not to wade into healthcare/environment debates out here in AmericaLand. As a tree-hugging lefty who cares about how chickens/cows are kept this means I practically have to staple my mouth shut sometimes (I would consider my own views quite mainstream at home but here I think they may verge on communist...)
So I never thought I'd spout my opinions on this blog but I saw something posted today that made me think about the difference in being a poet starving in your garret in the UK, as opposed to the USA.
Tania Hershman pointed this out: the average earnings of writers in the UK.
The 'average' writer in my age group earns £14,564, although the median, i.e. typical, earning is £5000. That's not a lot. Generally, you'd have to do something else to keep the wolf from the door. However, I could very easily live on £14,564.
And that's because of something called the National Health Service.
Now, like most people I hadn't given the NHS a lot of thought until I became too ill to work for nearly three years. I had to give up my job. I could barely leave the house and couldn't drive. But, because I had paid National Insurance (this is taken out of your wages and is compulsory) I was given Incapacity Benefit. Not a lot, but it helped. I also had exactly the same access to medical care that I'd had when I was working. After all, if you're not working the idea is to get you better so you can, right? It was all entirely free.
I started writing as therapy - you have to do something all day - and loved it. It really helped me and I slowly, gradually, began to feel better.
I started my own business part time, going into small (generally arts-based) offices and working as a project manager/consultant. This sounds more glamorous than it was, but I was able to work my hours around my illness and never tell my employers about it. There is still a terrible taboo around the words 'Mental Health', and even though I don't think it would have mattered, I still didn't want to say anything.
The rest of the time, health allowing, I wrote.
As a self-employed person working part-time, I didn't have to even think about medical costs. I wasn't forced back into a large company with a health plan. Insurance for cars etc is cheaper because you don't have to worry about massive medical bills. Until I could drive again I could rely on (generally expensive but at least it's there) public transport. Where I live now I'd be stuck without a car.
Student loans in the UK are run from one central body and you don't have to pay them off until you're earning a certain amount (possibly £20,000/$30,000 now?). If you never earn that much you never pay it off. It is supposed to be a tax on the successful, giving back what they have got themselves.
I wasn't earning enough to have to repay my student loan, so I didn't have to consider that in my finances. In any case, the amount is small as the fees for my year (in any university in the country, including Oxford/Cambridge) were £1000. (I don't agree with fees; successful people pay enough taxes anyway and it discourages people from poorer backgrounds. I certainly don't agree with the recent increases. All higher education/training courses/apprentiships should be funded from taxes in my opinion. But.)
By the time I came out here to East Coast America I had started to sell my stories and articles. It was a unique opportunity to do what I love pretty much full-time.
One day, I'll earn enough to be entirely self-supporting. (I still pay National Insurance for self-employed folk out here, by the way). I'll pay back my student loan, pay lots of taxes and be a worthwhile member of the community (by 'community' I mean Bristol, my husband and the cat we'll have by then). I'll be doing something I love and hopefully giving something back. I may even make a difference in other people's lives.
I just don't think I'd have got there if I'd had to worry about medical bills, insurance, student loans (I have a Masters, how much would I owe here?) and running a car by myself.
In my opinion, living in the UK makes things a lot easier for young writers/musicians and artists, people starting up businesses and people on a low income, whether in good health or not.
Off to get on with that novel now. I have nothing to lose but my tea going cold.