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Letter From Elsewhere: Arizona

When the big gas heater broke down just as the southerly hit Wellington this week, I wished I were back in Arizona, where the thermometer is already heading up into the 30s - only they insist on calling it the 90s. (Does anyone know why America clings stubbornly to imperials and Fahrenheit, instead of metrics and Celsius?). Come summer, it will go way over 40 for weeks.

The endless sunny days take some getting used to. There’s no weather to speak of, so people talk about the heat and drought instead. Spend just a few days in these desert cities, and it’s easy to see why they’re so wedded to air conditioning. Without it, modern Western life would be impossible, and Arizona would certainly not be the fastest growing state in the USA. Greater Phoenix now spreads over a bigger area than Los Angeles.

My friends grow over a dozen amazingly different kinds of cactus around their house in Tempe (which, just in case you didn’t know, is Lower Hutt’s sister city). They have fat round ones, tall skinny ones, flat prickly pears and deceptively furry-looking teddy bears. (By the way, you know those scenes where John Wayne lops the top off a barrel cactus and gets enough water for a posse of eight? Forget it, you’d die.) Their garden is unusual – most of their neighbours persist in trying to keep lawns and flowers alive, in a kind of desert denial that seems to be widespread. Grass, including golf courses, sops up around 3 million gallons of water a day (though most of it is said to be recycled).

Like the birds of New Zealand, the cacti and related plants have evolved to form a whole diverse world of their own. The huge saguaro, the one in the Peanuts cartoons, is the kauri of the desert. It grows very slowly for at least seventy years before it starts to put out a single “arm”. A mature plant weighs around ten tons.

Just as exotic to a New Zealander are the strange shapes of the social landscape. Huge and beautiful civic amenities – concert halls, theatres, art galleries and collections – turn out to be the full or partial gifts of wealthy private citizens. Volunteering is a way of life here – so much so that areas where we would take the role of paid staff for granted, such as running the front desk at a hospital, art gallery or tourist information centre, turn out to be the province of volunteers. Donating to charity takes up a big chunk of higher salaries, as does tipping.

At the same time, the homeless and cashless abound (not always the same people, as Barbara Ehrenreich’s first-hand account of life among the working poor* makes clear). And just by crossing a street, you can move from the first world to what looks remarkably like the third.

One short visit could tell me nothing about whether these vast, contradictory differences in wealth and wellbeing are widening or narrowing. But a new book on The Social Health Of The Nation, the first of its kind for the United States, says the gap between rich and poor in America is approaching its worst point in fifty years, and is the largest among eighteen industrialised nations. America has more children living in poverty (14.3 million) than any other similar country. The number of Americans without health insurance has reached 43 million, an increase of more than one third since 1970.

The authors, Marc and Maria Miringoff, have built on the Index of Social Health which they have released annually for the past twelve years, to examine trends over 27 years. Tellingly, the “social map” of the USA formed by their data corresponds very closely to the election night map of November 2000. Eighteen of the 20 worst-placed states cast their electoral votes for President Bush. Eighteen of the 20 best-placed voted for Al Gore.

The Miringoffs argue that one reason the indicators they use are not taken seriously enough is because the relevant data, unlike the Dow or the GDP, “are not released promptly enough or prominently enough to bring about a public response". As a result:

"While a slippage from 3.8 percent to 2.0 percent in quarterly economic growth during an election year might prove lethal for a president, a 10 percent decline in social health, affecting the lives of a majority of the population cannot be conceived, much less discussed. A president or a governor is only rarely called to account when there is a significant increase [for example, in child poverty, high school completion or the number of families who do not have health insurance, the three indicators the Miringoffs regard as the most telling] during his or her term of office. Nor is such an official praised when the rate of child poverty falls.”

Well, it’s election year here. It would be fascinating to see a Social Health Index of our own. Any takers?

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