Fingers on buzzers

  • Jon Kelly
  • 17 Sep 08, 09:36 AM GMT

In 1950 Ralph Edwards, the presenter of popular NBC radio quiz Truth or Consequences, set his listeners a challenge. If an American town were willing to rename itself after his show, he would broadcast its 10th anniversary episode there.

One sleepy settlement decided that it needed the publicity badly enough. On 31 March that year the citizens of Hot Springs, New Mexico, went to the polls. The change of name was approved by 1,294 votes to 294. On 1 April, Hot Springs officially became Truth or Consequences.

Truth or Consequences, New MexicoIt sounds like the plot to some Frank Capra-esque feelgood comedy. But press attention gave the local tourist trade a much-needed boost. NBC also agreed to organise a Ralph Edwards Fiesta in the town on 1 May each year.

Though the residents had sacrificed something of their identity, their decision literally put Truth or Consequences on the map.

The story seemed to me to encapsulate the country's attitude to its heartlands. Americans idealise small towns - remember the reaction Bill Clinton received after his Place Called Hope speech?

But - as in the part of the world where I grew up - the encroachment of big chain stores has been blamed for snuffing out local identity. Now Truth or Consequences' 7,289 residents have their own Wal-Mart.

Ed IrwinAs the sun shone on Ralph Edwards Park I met Ed Irwin, 48. He was born in the town and had fond memories of growing up there. "It was great here when I was a kid," he recalls. "In the fiestas, you'd win things like entire encyclopaedias as raffle prizes. I got to meet all the big movie stars."

Now, though, he was worried that his way of life was being eroded.

"Our corporations, our government - they've lost all sense of individuality," he complained.

"That's what living in a small town is all about: doing your own thing. So I don't want no socialised health care, I'm going to take personal responsibility for myself."

He didn't like either of the main presidential candidates much, he said, but he was leaning towards McCain: "Sarah Palin's not some big-time politician. I think she understands people like me."

This very American preference for rugged individualism is one I've encountered already.

But Obama supporter Patch Rose, 42, offered a different take on what it meant to live in a place like this.

Cookie and Patch RoseAfter having had a malignant brain tumour removed in 2005, Patch's insurance company had billed him for 10% of his medical costs: some $40,000. He was working to pay it back when disaster struck - the cancer returned.

"I couldn't afford to pay any more," he recalled. "I was just going to hold a big party and say goodbye to everyone."

But Truth or Consequences wouldn't let him. The town rallied round. Local painters donated artworks. The furniture store chipped in with a microwave and the golf club handed over a set of irons. An auctioneer - more used to dealing with cattle and goats - agreed to sell them at a special event.

The total raised - $13,000 - was enough to ensure he could have his second operation. Patch remembered the auction with amazement.

"We had cowboys, we had artists, we had Republicans, we had Democrats," he said.

"I think that's what small-town America is all about - that sense of community."

His wife Cookie, 51, said she didn't believe that her husband would still be alive if they had stayed at their previous home in New York.

"If we'd been back in Brooklyn, people would have been sympathetic - but I don't believe they'd have done anything like this," she added.

So is a place like Truth or Consequences all about individuality or community? I'm not sure. But it's possible that Americans value towns like this much because, ultimately, they want both.


  • Comment number 1.

    This sort of support happens a lot, more so in a small community because everyone knows you.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thats a terrible story, not least because even though you HAVE private health cover paying 10% of a US medical bill means that a normal person still probably doesn't have cover.

    I don't think any sane person would say this is a good thing but if Obahma wants to change it he needs to clearly state where he's getting the money from. Fancy promises are one thing, delivering is another.

  • Comment number 3.

    Justin Webb is always trying to deflate Europeans' fear/scepticism of the US health system.

    I think this story - the system letting a middle-aged man die of cancer because he cannot afford an operation - does a lot to confirm it.

    As for "I don't want no socialised healthcare, I'll take my own responsibility", what on earth is this man talking about? Is he going to fight cancer with his bare knuckles and a bowie knife?

    The sense of community and support sounds wonderful, but I don't see how care for health and the human body can be mixed up with national government "trying" to erode small towns' individuality.

  • Comment number 4.

    It's a moving story, but many other people must die unnecessarily because their neighbours aren't so generous. It's the law of the jungle, and completely unacceptable in a rich country like the USA.

    No other developed country treats health care this way. Even many third-world countries do better than that.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's all about belonging - to a place, to a community.

    We've still got a bit of it in this country, here and there.

    The current vogue for flexibility, mobility and globalisation is doing its best to kill it off.

  • Comment number 6.

    Problem in the UK is people are too selfish,even if we lived in a small community,98% of UK people wouldn't give a toss about the person next door,or even members of their own familly.

    I have seen this so many thousands of times,especially in UK famillys they would rather let their relative rot than dig into their own pockets to help (also they cant wait to get their inheritance though).

    My familly are like that,all I can say is thankgod I'm not like them.It's not that they do it intentionally its just that the thought doesnt even cross their tiny minds. They are too busy thinking about themselves.

    A friend whom I hadn't seen for a number of years met up with me a while back.I remeber what he used to be like,caring,sensitve etc,but in a few short years he had changed and become like everyone else.
    His selfishness sickened me so much I told him where to go.I suffer from a chronic illness and I agreed to do a job for him as a mate etc,all he did was keep putting the pressure on and being so selfish.

    I was not being paid to do the job!but it certainly felt like it.People need to see past their own noses and think about others more thesedays.

  • Comment number 7.

    3. I think the guy is more likely relying on his own private medical insurance rather than a Bowie knife. I suspect he's frightened of a UK style society where you pay so much in tax for socialised healthcare, education etc that the only way you can afford to have kids is by claiming benefits that you're taxed for whether you get them or not!

  • Comment number 8.


    You now have a sense of what Real America wants to be..What it used to be. Small towns of people being individuals, but willing to do anything to help there neighbors.

    Spend a month in a town like that and you won't want to leave.

    You're doing well laddie

  • Comment number 9.

    "Individuality or community"...

    The two aren't necessarily at odds, provided the community forms through the voluntary commitments of individuals, as opposed to coerced commitments. Coercion is the essence of government programs, and so such programs work against the formation of true communities. In concrete terms: the more taxes you pay, and the more time you must devote to mandated actions, the less time and money you have to devote to the perceived needs of yourself and your neighbors.

  • Comment number 10.

    I am so happy that you are seeing the positive side of our smaller communities. The USA has many towns like Truth or Consequences where 'neighbor' is a word taken seriously.

  • Comment number 11.

    This story reminds me a lot of the experiences I had growing up in my small northern Ontario hometown. Individuality and community are often presented as mutually exclusive ideas, but that's not necessarily true. As poster number 8 pointed out, Mr. Rose's story is an example of people bridging the two ideals.

    Regarding universal health care ("socialized medicine") there are some things people in both camps don't understand about it. People in favour of it don't understand that you can still end up paying some costs (such as paying for your ambulance ride), and people's health can become a target for political stunts by the governments of the day (as was the case with the Calgary quadruplets - the provincial government in Alberta made deep cuts to the public health system there so that something like this would happen, and they could point to it as evidence that universal health care doesn't work). People against it don't understand that you pay a LOT less for healthcare taxes than you do for insurance premiums and those occasional ten-percents that torpedo the finances of any household not swimming in money, and universal healthcare also comes with a better system of arbitration for legal disputes involving medicine.

    But ideally, people should control their own health care - not corporations, not politicians, but co-workers, neighbours and communities in a democratic fashion, divorced from outside interests that use people's health for financial or political profit.

  • Comment number 12.

    My biggest complaint with universal health care is that it removes market competition from the equation.

    If the government runs health care then doctors no longer have to compete for customers business. Health care providers no longer have to provide better service so long as they meet minimum standards. I have met several Canadians who will cross the border because they feel better in the hands of a doctor who has to earn his fee.

    I also feel that social(ised) health care is going to lead us into the same mess we have with social security now. It's a wonderful idea but in the end, you just end up with a bunch of trapeze artists sleeping in the safety net instead of preforming. The show, in fact, will not go on. The system is broken, but there are so many people reliant on it that we can't fix it.

    On top of that, its an extremely inefficient use of money. Keeping $50,000 in a checking account that earns no interest is absolutely stupid if you could instead put that money into an interest earning savings account or the stock market where your money can make money instead of sit there and suffer from loss due to inflation.

    I guess part of the reason I feel this way was that I was always raised to be self-reliant. I save my own money for retirement, I put money away for a rainy day, and I don't expect for anyone else to save me when the chips are down, because that's not their job.

  • Comment number 13.

    Yes--now you're beginning to understand us!

    Keep going, and keep visiting the small towns--they are the heart and soul of this nation.

    You're in for a real adventure.

  • Comment number 14.

    7. Have you actually been to the UK? People don't need to sign up to benefits to have children. Not much more I can add.

    12. Most people's biggest complaint with privatised healthcare is exactly because it is run by market competition. The market cannot regulate itself completely, truthfully and honestly - there are clearly enough examples of that in the news right now - and having big corporations treating health like products to be shifted and advertised, rather than people to be valued, is a very scary notion.

    The UK's National Health Service (NHS) is one of the few things Britain has to be genuinely proud of. It's run on the principle of free universal healthcare for all at the point of use, because healthcare should be provided for people regardless of how much money they have, because money is not a correct and proper measurement of the value of a person.

    The standard of health in the NHS is of a very high quality. There are certainly some issues, e.g. resources put into putting pay-TV screens over every bed, while there are not enough nurses or domestics to ensure all patients eat properly. But as an organisation it is highly professional and provides an excellent service.

    Whether or not public healthcare could work in America, particularly considering how many people seem not to understand it or believe in it, is another matter.

  • Comment number 15.

    I live in a small town, too, on the west coast, north of Seattle. And, yes, the community is real plus, a lot of willingness to help out, no matter how far apart our religious and political differences. I'm all for helping ourselves, and our families, but, let's face it, modern realities often overwhelm our small town resources. Just look at the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. We're part of a global community, with factors that affect us that are far beyond our control. Small towns work for many of our social and physical needs, state and national and world networks work for others. And voting for someone (like Palin) just because they seem like "folks" isn't going to help much when that person has to grapple with world issues. Me, I don't trust her one bit.

  • Comment number 16.

    As an American, I have to say all this romanticism about rugged individualism, community voltuntarism and "taking care of yourself" is very inspriring -- but unbelievable crap.

    Did these people educate themselves or were they educated by community volunteers? No, they all (or most of them) went to public schools and state colleges, paid for by the (state) government. Did these people build their own highways, or did a group of hearty volunteers emerge out of nowhere to build highways? No, the federal and state governments built the U.S. highways, which are (or were) among the best in world. Do these people want to do away with Social Security and Medicare? Will they give their Social Security checks back to the government rather than cashing them? Will they not accept Medicare assistance? How about FEMA? If a hurricane or or earthquake comes through, are these people going to be rugged indivduals then? No, they will all take whatever federal monies they can get their hands on. How about American farmers, are they subsidized by the federal government? You best your ass they are, and if they lose that money they will cry holy hell to their congressmen and either by themselves or through paid lobbiests. How about the National Park System (also one of the best in the world)? Should we do away with that too? Perhaps the collective goodwill of the citizens of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and other towns in New Mexico will allow us to do away with all National and State parks in the state of New Mexico. Fine, get to it. We have socialism in America. Oh no, oh no, not socialism! Yes, it's called public education, the federal highway system, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, the National Park System, FEMA, military pensions, etc., etc., all of which at one or another were the envy of the world. Now Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG have been socialized in to the federal government -- and health care shouldn't be? Are you out of your mind? Are you telling me banking and insurance giants need to be controlled through tax payer money yet health care should be for profit? It's so assinine, backwards and fundamentally stupid that only an illiterate redneck mentality could continue to justify it. Hmm, I wonder why every other wealthy country provides free healthcare and ours doesn't? Oh, yeah, because we are so rugged and individualistic that we continue to set new records for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

    Once you no longer get anything from the government in the way of education, highways and infrastructure, Social Security, Medicare, farming subsidies, parks and recreation, disaster assistance, etc., etc., fine then you can talk about rugged individualism and taking care of yourself. Until then, shut your unrugged faces up.

  • Comment number 17.

    To Eddienix: My sentiments exactly.

    To Old South: Large northern cities like Philadelphia are just as much the heart and soul of this nation as any small rural town are.

  • Comment number 18.

    I live in San Francisco, population 750,000, and we have community organizing and neighbors helping neighbors and charitable fundraising for people hit by hard times all the time.

    I'm always amazed that small-town people think that urbanites do not have any sense of neighbor or community.

  • Comment number 19.

    14. I am a brit. For somone like me : 31, married, combined income of £40,000 2 cars big mortgage on a small house the only way we can afford kids is with family tax credits and every other sort of child benefit the state provides.

    If our taxes were cut by 1/3 , and 180bn of the UK's 660bn goes on benefits, we wouldn't need these credits in the first place and the savings on admin could be passed onto even more tax cuts.

  • Comment number 20.

    @19- if we cut it by a third, your wife wouldnt have got maternity pay (just like the US), you wouldnt get any child benefit, you would have had to pay a couple of $1000 just to have baby born and if anything had gone wrong you would have had to pay through the nose for it, even after (assuming you could have afforded it) your health insurers had footed the bill. My American friends are astounded and envious when I describe all the support and healthcare parents to be get in this country.

  • Comment number 21.

    #20. The problem is that most of the recipients of benefits in the UK have never paid a penny towards them. The government only pay statuatory maternity pay- less than £15 per day. Most is met by the employer themselves. Equally for someone in my situation private health insurance is £30 a month. Even doubled that is still a fraction of my monthly NI contributions.

    My great-grandfather marched on the Jarrow marches. The welfare state was intended to stop working men's kids dying for lack of a doctor and to make sure those who lost their jobs didn't starve in the street. Not as a comfortable way of life for those who have never worked

  • Comment number 22.

    Americans who condemn universal health care as wasteful and inefficient haven't had to deal with their health insurance companies recently. There are a lot of people in medical offices who do nothing but handle insurance company paperwork: pre-certification, billing, re-billing, providing documentation, etc. And there are a lot of people in health insurance companies who do nothing but challenge claims and generate paperwork. Even with all of this (or maybe because of it) health care costs in the US are soaring. In contrast, Medicare is actually fairly efficient. Medicare costs have grown much more slowly than health care costs in general.

    And as far as universal health care removing market competition, you can only have competition when consumers have sufficient information and the ability to make a free choice. How many people know enough about health care to find a competent specialist on their own, or know who is the best surgeon in town? Most people rely on referrals from their family doctor. That's not competition.

    And the health care field doesn't exactly encourage competition. I know of at least one case--in a small town actually--where a physician threathened to make sure his patient couldn't find a doctor in town to treat him if he went ahead and got a second opinion before surgery. That was pretty extreme, but there are plenty of cases where physicians cover for each other's mistakes. Whenever there is a shocking case of a physician's ineptitude that appears in the newspapers, it turns out that other doctors in the hospital or in the area knew about it but kept quiet. You can't have competition in that kind of environment. You have to have oversight instead.

    And I think that these days most proposals for universal health care in the US aren't talking about a British-style system. They're usually talking about universal health insurance, which is quite different.

  • Comment number 23.

    Re: post #12 from iceph03nix:

    The problem with leaving health care up to market competition as it currently stands is that it doesn't also provide consumer choice, which is supposed to be a component of the market. Another problem is the market movers (i.e., competitors) are the big health care companies. The big insurance companies make the choice for the consumer. In other words, yes the competitors compete but in reality the consumer doesn't choose. So rather than the consumer being the market mover, it's the insurance companies and big health care companies. I have been forced to buy 2 individual insurance policies for my family and while we have access to any type of health care we need, we have no choice in where we go to get our care. And besides that, I literally have had no choice in which insurance company I go with because I am diabetic. So not only have I not been able choose my health care provider, I haven't even been able to choose my insurance carrier. Where's the competition in that? And while I applaud your efforts to be self reliant, for many of us it's not possible. Lastly, there is no competition if a consumer can't even enter the market because of financial constraints. In other words, if a person can't afford health insurance (and there are millions of poor and middle-class individuals who can't) his or her inability to pay has no impact on the market. So how can this be a true "market" if individuals aren't even able to participate in it?

  • Comment number 24.

    Re: post 16 especially as well as 17 and 18: Well said!

  • Comment number 25.

    Hi Peter_Sym (#2)

    If you're worried about Obama's Health Plans--

    According to the Wall Street Journal, two independent studies show that Obama's health plan will cover more people and cost less than McCain's. Surprise!

    (Sorry to quote another news source - I work in finance, so the WSJ is usually sitting around.)

  • Comment number 26.

    Finally - a post that talks to what seem to be actual people. Thank you!

    As someone whose family has worked in healthcare - universal healthcare will come. It has to, we are at the breaking point. The cash is there - it's just that the insurance co.'s and the drug companies are gorging on it.

    I though Hillary had the best Healthcare plan - but there is too much $$$ at stake for the OP to ever do something about the problem.

    "Help US Obama, you're our only hope" :)

  • Comment number 27.

    The radio spot from BBC's trip brought me to this blog. After you spoke with the organization Divide We Fail (an org. desperately trying to get us to stop fighting with each other and unite on the issues), you interviewed a man who wanted "no socialized medicine," despite the fact his insurance wouldn't pay for his cancer treatments. You observed that we Americans apparently wanted it both ways.

    It is true, I feel, that Americans are still too in love with our mythology of the Individualist, and are too scared of having our freedoms taken away - even if the only freedoms we exercise are the choice of what channel to watch on TV tonight or what sports team to support. (The fact that our Constitution has been restricted like never before in the past few years barely registers.) Americans are frightened of the very *idea* of socialized medicine, but most couldn't tell you what that meant.

    Now, regarding whether Americans are still too in love with cars to use public transportation as much as, say, Europeans - I think that's the wrong question. Up until recently, my office was 35 miles from my house. Public transportation would have taken me up to 2 hours to reach my office, while I could drive there in 40 min. The public transportation infrastructure is just not there in many communities. On top of that, many of us work far from our homes - thirty-five miles is not considered a long commute. Perhaps these two facts are an indirect result of a past fling with the car, but for many of us, the thrill is gone and yet we must keep going back. We often have no choice. If it's not because of all-but-absent public transportation, it's the jobs we are often forced to take in cities far from our homes.

    Just a few observations from upstate New York.

  • Comment number 28.

    Just a couple Thoughts on Jon Kelly's articles especially his ending comment on the "Fingers on Buzzers" article.
    Americans as rugged individuals vs community. As an American with a small town upbringing I can elaborate. The individualism comes from being alone in an empty wilderness and having to support yourself. No one does your work for you as they are working just as hard. How you do depends on how hard you work and the Grace of God. The community getting together to help the man with Cancer is a case of help thy neighbor. Everyone knows there are times in ones life where help is needed so your neighbors will help out. If my neighbor needed help I would be there. Now if this neighbor was known to be lazy and the trouble was due to his own negligence that would be another matter all together. He would probably get some help food if available but it would come with some words of advice. Propbably no help if it happened a second or third time.
    Today, It depends upon what part of the country you are from but in general Americans who are descendents of the original settlers and still in a rural area are usually the rugged individualists. Life is still hard for them, many are farmers, or live in small houses and work for a local mill or have a small business. They aren't rich maybe 30,000/yr combined income some very poor $13,000 or less. Please understand they are proud of what they have as they worked for it. The communities are usually close withseveral generations of families living there. Money, though nice, is not as important as character.
    People in a big city like New York don't understand that. They confuse services with community. Not the same thing. These are places where your handshake is your bond. They know your family, they knew you as a kid and your father as a kid. They feel alientated as a whole from the rest of the country. The news, TV shows, movies are alien to their lives. Even movies about their home are off as the actors don't get the accent right or miss the meaning. Remeber the controversy atround G. Clloneys movie about the fishermen lost out of Glouster Massachussetss.

  • Comment number 29.

    Sorry to burst your bubble, Jon.

    But this small town, "truth or consequence", is hiding a sinister past. Only last year, the School's Superintendent, it's entire teachers staff, it's administrators, it's school board and I would like to add, the entire town was recommend by the New Mexico Education State Board to take remedial training in race relations. It seem the the whole town, the entire school board, the entire teaching staff banded together against a lone black student and his mom who claim discrimination because of derogatory symbols degrading it's black students in the school's drinking fountains as only "learning" activities.

    The local weekly news media and the news media surrounding the town didn't say much about the incident perhaps since they have to live with these kind of hidden racism among their own. Nothing was heard even when the NAACP appeared to find out what was happening.

    As the name applies, it's the truth or the consequences. Obviously the author of the name had no idea that the name would truly apply to what was once known a Hot Springs.

    My point is, don't take anything for granted, Jon, just take everything at face value. Digging a little closer to the truth can be a very harsh reality in many of these "small mom and dad" type towns.

    As far as I'm concern the Walmart, not the town's name, is about the best thing that happen to this tourist trap full of second hand shops!

    Just keep doing a good job, Jon.

  • Comment number 30.

    To: Silver 760, #6.

    I was truly fortunate to be assigned to a Royal Air Force bomber command back in the late 1950's. Before then, I had been in Germany, Holland, Spain, France, and Morocco, North Africa.

    But never in my entire life before, since and after have I ever encountered the intelligence, the sophistication, the kindness, the interactions among cultures and an educated society like I did in Great Britain.

    I loved everything about Great Britain, and England in particular. One never felt the hostility, the doubt, the prejudices and the lack of belonging in England. I even caught myself thinking of being, or at least act like the British.

    So Silver 760, you and your entire town cannot become like the British. They outclass you small town lads in every which way. You and your entire town will never match the sophistication, the intelligence and the respect I have for Great Britain and it's subjects!

    You really are even aware of what you are talking about, laddie boy!


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