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A time for safety nets

Gavin Hewitt | 14:19 UK time, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Child in a Detroit soup kitchenI am returning to Europe from a few days away. At the weekend I was travelling on the New York subway and in the underground world where all eyes avoid each other a man with a very loud booming voice began talking about the hungry. He was collecting money and pointed out that in this holiday season thousands would be dependent on charity. Like with most metros, subways and undergrounds he got few takers.

On Fifth Avenue volunteers from the Salvation Army stand outside most of the big stores. I spoke briefly to one woman who said the food banks had never been in such demand and in danger of running out.

A few more conversations filled in the picture. One in eight Americans and one in four US children are fed with the help of food stamps. The US Department of Agriculture reckons that one in six Americans either went hungry or had insufficient food in 2008. There are nearly 700,000 homeless people. It can remain true that if you lose your job you lose your home.

Now I mention this because you will not find such dramatic figures anywhere in Europe. The safety nets are part of the social contract and most Europeans would not want the harsher world of the United States. So, when you travel around Europe, you can escape noticing we are in recession. The pain is less than in the United States. Many Europeans take satisfaction in this.

But as the world emerges from the recession another argument will start. Is it the European or American model that will create new jobs quicker, that will produce the greater number of start-up companies, that will more enthusiastically embrace the new technologies, that will be better prepared to compete in the global market?

The answers cannot be known yet, but in the months ahead I will be looking at how Europe, with its safety nets, bounces back.


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