Being unemployed turns you into “a different man,” said the American, who also is a father of two. “When I was working, I may have walked around with my head way up in the air, and now it’s kind of like looking down. It brings you down to a sense of reality.”
As disheartening as their situations were, both of these men tried their best to do the right thing. They looked diligently for new jobs, lived frugally off their unemployment checks, and continued to pay off the mortgages on the homes their kids lived in.
Unfortunately, both wound up in the emergency room. The Canadian got in a car crash and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. The American developed an excruciating pain in his back and side and was forced to head to the ER. “I finally just had to go and see what it was,” he said. “They ran a bunch of tests and everything on me, ultrasound and all this other stuff, and couldn’t necessarily really pin it down. They just called it inflammation.”
The Canadian paid nothing for his care. But the American had lost his insurance when he lost his job. He hadn’t extended his plan afterward because he couldn’t afford it. He ended up with a $1,000 hospital bill.
A health-care system where the government foots the bills—the single-payer system that Sanders wants—helps ensure that a random health emergency does not spiral into something worse. The man from Michigan was already in debt and already struggling to pay the bills—“I’m taking care of two households … so it can get rough at times,” he pointed out—and now he was getting pushed deeper into poverty.
Without a stronger safety net, it also becomes harder to pick oneself up from a psychologically devastating predicament like long-term unemployment. One of the American workers I studied was severely depressed and dealing with suicidal thoughts. After bouncing around government agencies and not getting any help, he turned to the Salvation Army for charitable donations of antidepressants and other prescription medications. He went to a local church for group therapy. The problem was, the only sessions available were for Narcotics Anonymous. He didn’t have a drug problem, but he started attending anyways. “They’ll talk to anybody,” he said. “They’ll let anybody in.”
I met a Canadian worker with a very similar background: unemployed, separated from his wife, in the process of losing his home, deeply depressed and anxious about the future. At times this man would walk around with his head swimming in rage, frustrated with other people and with himself. In his case, though, he was able to see a psychiatrist. “That’s not something that we’re supposed to do in my family,” he said. His friends would probably have sniggered if he told them. But the treatment was free, and he knew he needed help.
It’s important not to overstate the generosity of the Canadian model. For example, one of my depressed Canadian workers struggled to pay for outpatient sessions with a therapist that weren’t covered by the single-payer system. In terms of mental-health treatment, prescriptions, and dental and vision care, the Canadian system has gaps that supplemental insurance plans funded by employers often need to fill. But generally speaking, it was far easier for the Canadians I met to get the care they needed. And the fact that the Canadian system is lacking in some areas is exactly the point I want to make. We don’t have to be Denmark (or Great Britain or Spain, for that matter) to do a better job of helping people cope with a crisis.