Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Election Day: The French Abroad Voting in the US and Canada

Today is election day for the French abroad and at home.  Tim Smyth in the US has been driving by one of the polling sites and he took a picture which he posted on Facebook. Tim very kindly gave me his permission to post his photo on the Flophouse.

Tim writes, "Below is a picture of the line to vote at the Lycee Francais in Somerville, MA [State of Massachusetts] outside of Boston at around 4:00PM. It was actually slightly longer when I first drove by."

Photo by Tim Smyth, April 23, 2017

And here is a video of the French voting in Washington, D.C.

And this video on Twitter by Francois Zeller showing a very long line of French trying to vote in Montreal.  The Montreal Gazette says that French waited for hours in line to vote.  The article has a video with on the spot interviews with French voters.

And here are a few general articles about the election in the New York Times, the Japan Times, Al Jazeera, and the Guardian.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The French Candidates' Promises to the French Abroad

Update:  The Union des Français de l'Etranger (UFE) sent a questionnaire to all the candidates.  Fillon, Cheminade, Melenchon and Macron all submitted replies to the questions.  The responses received are hereBonne lecture!

I am very interested in the French elections even though I am not a French citizen and I cannot vote. However, the candidates' programs will directly affect me.  I will be taxed more (or less) depending on who wins.  I have the same concerns about the economy, pensions, and security as any French national.  And I want France's future to be bright because I want my children to be able to return if they wish.

One of the things I most envy the French abroad is that they not only have the vote but they have representation in the nation's parliament (senators and representatives).  Thus, the French candidates pay attention (at least during the election season) to their citizens abroad.  I wouldn't claim that it's perfect. The French government decided not to allow on-line voting this election cycle so the French in Japan must vote by mail or travel to the nearest consulate in Kyoto or Tokyo to cast their vote in person.  Still, it is better than what many countries offer their communities abroad.

Since I have two French voters in my household, I am aware of just how close that attention is.  The younger Frenchling and my spouse have received emails from many of the candidates outlining what they have in mind for les Français de l'Etranger should they be elected.  A large enveloppe arrived the other day with pretty flyers and other election information.

So today I thought I would give you some idea of the promises the candidates are making to their compatriots in distant lands.  Though "Les promesses n'engagent que ceux qui y croient" I think we can reasonably assume that these politicians are trying to respond to needs that have been expressed by the French abroad.  As such it is an interesting, if indirect, view of the French diaspora's lives abroad -  what the candidates think will entice them to go to the polls and vote for them.  This is recognition that the world of the French at home and the world of the French expatriates are different. The candidates had to give this some thought in order to come up with an offer that would interest the French living in Berlin, Toronto, San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Casablanca alike while still linking the French abroad to France and emphasizing their ties to the nation. But the offer can't be too good lest they ruffle the feathers of voters back in France who are still the majority.

Whenever possible I will try give you a link or a video so you can read or listen to what they have to say yourself.  In one case (Melenchon) I wasn't able to find anything specific - a message expressly for the Français établis hors de France nor did the French voters in my house get an email from his campaign.  If he has sent something out and I have simply missed it, please send me the link or the contents of the mail and I will add it.  The website with Melenchon's program is here. And see above for his answers to the UFE questionnaire.

Benoît Hamon:  In this not terribly inspiring video he talks first about education and helping the French abroad to educate their children in French schools.  And then he goes on to talk about consular services and how he sees the French abroad as performing a service as ambassadors and how their influence should be part of an overall strategy for France in the world.

Emmanuel Macron:  In his email Une France tournée vers l'Europe et le monde Macron has a bright pink link inviting you to "consulte les mesures pour les français à l'étranger."  Note that he invokes the idea of the French abroad as representatives of France at the top of the webpage.  He has three goals for the French expatriés.  The first is education. Macron wants to make a French education abroad accessible to everyone. The second is about equitable taxation and better social protections abroad.  The third is to bring the French abroad closer to their elected representatives and to make sure that their voices are heard back in France.

Marine Le Pen:  In her email Mon programme présidentiel pour les Français de l'Etranger Le Pen  also put education at the top of the list.  She wants to assure free education and distance learning for all French students. Next is security abroad especially in dangerous areas.  Third is taxation:  Le Pen affirms a tax system based on territory, not nationality and she wants to lift the requirement to pay the  CSG/CRDS for the French living outside the EU - something that is apparently already the case but perhaps she is referring to the reimbursement of the CSG/CRDS already paid which is still an issue. She also promises better social protection with something called the Protection Universelle Maladie.  And finally she also proposes that the French abroad have more say in national issues.  You can read the long version here

François Fillon:  And yet another who talks about how the French abroad are representatives participating in the "rayonnement de la France" in the world.  In this video Fillon begins with taxes and confirms that the territorial taxation system will continue under his leadership.  He then discusses security and, yes, education.  He proposes more scholarships and other financing for a French education outside of France.  As for social protection he would allow expatriates to have access to all social protections in France the moment they return home.  And he promises that the voice of the French abroad will be heard at home and he fully supports the on-line vote to make it easier for the French abroad to participate in French elections.

Clearly, there are some recurring themes here with all candidates promising better access to French education abroad.  Another is the idea that the French abroad are unofficial French ambassadors in their host country - a sentiment that Americans abroad also hear in conversations with the homeland (when we or they want something.) It is one of those feel-good expressions that is so ambiguous that we can read whatever we want to into it.  Yes, I have come to have a certain cynicism when I hear it used.  All the candidates promise to ensure that expat voices will be heard and their influence recognized back in the home country.

Taxation is also mentioned by three candidates who seem to have a very different idea of "fair" than Melenchon.  Territorial taxation all the way.  Oh, and they all agree that it isn't reasonable to expect the French abroad to pay the CSG/CRDS ( special French  income taxes that the US IRS does not recognize as "real" taxes that can be used to offset US taxes.)

And finally both Fillon, Macron and Le Pen are in favor of either extending social protections to the French abroad or making them immediately eligible for coverage the moment they hit French soil.

Of all these promises the one that I would hold them to (if I were a French citizen abroad) is the one about education.  It's telling that all the candidates here have ideas about how to help the French expatriate pay for a French education in the host country.  This is one that would not only be a huge help to French families (see some of the school fees in Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, London)  and a way of reducing the inequalities between the French abroad on company packages and those who aren't, but it is a very good investment for France.  

A French child abroad who is inserted into the French school system as early as possible and who follows it all the way through high school is more likely to return to France for university.  This would mean young French returning to France with a good education, good health, knowledge about the world, and an extra language or two.  What France lost with the departure of their parents, comes back with interest.  That is one hell of a deal.  And I think France would be all the better for it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Japan Has Something Worse than the FBAR

The US Foreign Bank Account Report (known as the FBAR) is an annual report that Americans and Green Card holders must file if they have more than 10,000 USD (about 9,000 Euros and about 1 million Japanese Yen) in the foreign-to-the-US-but-local-to-those-of-us-living-abroad banks .  I bank at a branch of the BNP a couple of hundred meters from my house in France, but for the US this is "offshore" and must be reported as if I were banking in the Cayman Islands. It's a tedious exercise but failure to file incurs stiff penalties.

However, compared to the Japanese Overseas Assets Reporting (OAR), the FBAR is a model of simplicity.  I had no idea this existed because I'm only a part-timer in Japan and it doesn't apply to me.  However, it would apply to a lot of the foreigners I have met in Japan and it's worth a look.  This is not an attempt to say that the FBAR is a better beast (I don't think that at all) but it gave me some idea of how the FBAR and form 8938 could evolve.

The OAR forms are here. They are in Japanese as are the instructions.

The scope of the OAR is greater than that of the FBAR.  Japan wants to know all about your overseas assets:  banks accounts, homes and other property, jewelry, antiques, trusts.  It's basically anything with monetary value.

Who has to file?  A couple of very good articles in the Japan Times by Louise George Kittaka gives the particulars without inundating you with too much information. She writes:

"In a nutshell, the OAR law applies to foreign nationals who have been in Japan more than five years within the last 10, and whose overseas assets have a combined value of ¥50 million or more. Those who fall outside this group have nothing to worry about, for now at least."

50 million Yen is about 460,000 USD and about 427,000 Euros.  This is a higher threshold than both the FBAR and form 8938.  However, there is more work involved because it's the agregate (combined total) of all the assets, not just the combined balances of the financial accounts.  It does exclude those who came to Japan with little or no assets back in the home country.  But it will hit those with a house they might be renting while they are abroad, those who have retirement accounts, and those who inherit assets in the home country while they are living in Japan:  the family home in France, mother's jewelry, plus a PEA and a company retirement account or stock options  might take a French in Japan over the threshold faster than she thinks.  It's also not clear to me how Japan will handle currency fluctuations.  Depending on how the Yen does relative to the British Pound or the Euro may mean an individual has to report one year and then falls under the threshold the next year and can skip the exercise.

I see a real bonanza here for the compliance industry because it's not easy to comply. With the FBAR the American abroad just takes the bank statements and determines the highest value of each one and fills in the form.  But how do you accurately report the value of a home in the UK?  What is the value of mom's jewelry in Canada?  Things like that make this a real headache.

Like the FBAR there are stiff fines for non-compliance.  Kittaka quotes a tax expert in this article:

“The penalty for noncompliance is ¥500,000 [about 4,000 Euros] or a year in jail, irrespective of any earnings derived. This person should definitely file, even if a tax return is not required to accompany it,” Tong advises."

Looking beyond the reporting, is the income from these assets taxable in Japan if you are a resident?  The answer is Yes.  See the 2016 Income Tax and Special Income Tax for Reconstruction Guide for Aliens which says on page 3  "Any individual who has a domicile or owns a residence continuously for one year or more is classified as a resident. Residents, except for those classified as “non-permanent residents” have an obligation to pay the income tax and special income tax for reconstruction for whole domestic source income and foreign source income."  (The Foreign Asset reporting guidelines are on page 16.)  So if you are getting rental income in the home country or former country of citizenship, it is both reportable and taxable in Japan.

Which creates the same problem that Americans have with the FBAR.  If you are a permanent resident of Japan and you start reporting on income-generating assets that you have never reported on your Japanese income tax declaration in previous years, well you've just outed yourself as a "tax evader" in Japan.  What happens next?  An audit?  Fines? Jail time? Deportation?  The US has an amnesty program called Streamlined which again is not perfect but can be used by some to get out of the trap.  If Japan has something similar please let me know.

Having learned this relatively bad news, there are people asking on forums about the risk of being caught if you don't comply.  How will Japan know that you inherited something in the UK, France, South Korea?

In the past I would say that it would have been very hard for Japan to track assets and income abroad.  Today, well, things have changed.  Concerning FATCA, the Japan/US IGA calls for Japan to report to the US and not the other way around.  So FATCA is mostly a concern for Americans in Japan who have not filed in the US. However, the basic tax treaty does allow for information exchange.  In fact, as of 2017 Japan has 68 of these agreements with 110 jurisdictions.    It was not automatic, Japan has to make the request to the other tax authority.

However, Japan has signed on to something called the CRS (Common Reporting Standard).  This is the OECD version of FATCA.  I went looking for how this actually works and I found this FAQ by the Canadian Bankers Association.  They say:

"The CRS expands upon FATCA by requiring Canadian financial institutions to identify and report to the CRA [Canada Revenue Agency] information about accounts held by persons who are resident for tax purposes in any country other than Canada or the U.S. The CRA will then exchange this information with tax authorities of the countries with which Canada has entered into an agreement."

So if you have accounts in Canada (or any other country that has signed onto CRS like France, Japan, Korea, India, UK  (full list is here), your accounts are reportable to the jurisdictions (yes, you can have more than one) in which you are a tax resident.  So, if you live in Japan and this is one of your residences for tax purposes then other countries will automatically report on your reportable accounts in the UK, Canada and so on. To complicate matters what is a reportable account depends on the country implementation.   KPMG has this report on how Japan will implement. Assuming that your accounts in another country are reportable,  Japan won't find all your assets abroad in the report, but it will give the Japanese tax authorities some idea of where to look and who to ask.

This means that your chances of getting caught not reporting foreign assets are getting much higher. Also look forward to future refinements.  This is version 1.0 of the net and governments everywhere are struggling to find tax revenue in the face of changing demographics, deficits and outbound migration.  They want more and more reporting, more and more information flowing on a global scale.  

To those who argue that this is "tax justice"  I would urge them to look closely at the implementation of these reporting systems to see who exactly is going to be impacted:  the whales (high earners) or the minnows (mid to low income earners)?    How much money will be coming in versus the cost of implementation and enforcement? How much will individuals have to pay to comply?  Are we filling the national treasury or are we making the lawyers and other compliance experts rich?   Are there programs for the "minnows" to get compliant without going bankrupt, getting thrown in jail or being deported?  These are all legitimate questions that should be answered in full by anyone throwing around the word "justice."   And I'm sure they'll get right on that now that I've brought it up.  

I dream.....

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mélenchon and the "Impôt universel"

For those of you who didn't get the memo the United States has a  little special something for its compatriots living outside the US:  citizenship-based taxation.  This mean that US citizens and Green Card holders abroad owe a pile of paperwork (tax and foreign account declarations) to the IRS every year even if they have never lived or worked in the US and have no assets or income there.

Awareness of this is growing among the US migrant/expatriate communities around the world because of FATCA, a program that requires foreign financial institutions to send a list of their American and almost American account holders to the US.  Many countries have signed agreements to hand over this information to the American government.  (See my post on the France/US IGA  and this review for the Flophouse on the Japan/US agreement by Inaka Nezumi.)

Read them and weep. And then grow a spine and (wo)man up. We are in this mess for the most part because of our government but also because we weren't paying attention and most of us refused to be part of any "American" organization abroad lest we be accused of living in an English-speaking ghetto.  There are organizations and individuals out there fighting this:  Isaac Brock Society, AARO, ACA.  These are the soldiers doing the heavy lifting and taking the risks in what I call the American Diaspora Tax War.  Find a way to show your support.

And to those of you who live outside your home countries and are not American citizens or Green Card holders, pay attention because some governments are looking at their deficits and eyeing the income and assets of their "rich" expats and thinking, "Maybe the Americans are on to something..."

Exhibit A this month is the French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  He went on a French news program a few weeks ago and extolled the virtues of an "Impôt universel."  This is code for "citizenship-based taxation."  Something he admitted to and he even described how it would work:  a French living in another country would pay local taxes and then send his/her declaration to the French "fisc" with a little something for "la France."

Mélenchon has been rising in the polls and he stands a real chance of winning.  His proposal for taxing the French diaspora is getting a lot of attention.  He uses the old argument (one that Americans abroad know all too well) that this is necessary in order to combat tax evasion by the rich and it's only fair that French citizens contribute something to the home country in addition to what they pay in the host country.  

«Vous êtes français ? Très bien : vous payez vos impôts où que vous soyez sur la planète
"You are French?  Fine.  You pay your [French] taxes wherever you are on this planet."

We (Americans abroad) have heard that one before and it's a message Americans at home like a lot. It is an equally appealing argument for the French in France.  It invokes solidarity, fairness, and a chance to get back at those who walked away from La République.  The time to push back on this is now, mes amis.  Don't let this one go unchallenged, especially at a time when populism seems to be on the rise in the home country.  Email your French representatives and let them know exactly what you think of this.  

Take it from me, fighting a fait accompli is much harder than killing an idea before it gets traction and votes.

(Discussion about the "universal tax" starts at 31:00)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Middle-Class Migrant

"Whilst it is impossible to come up with a coherent answer as to why the middle class migrate internationally, it is plausible to see international migration as a particular mobility strategy, employed consciously or otherwise, that leads to their appropriation of social, cultural and economic capital (Bourdieu 1984). No longer do we just see managers and executives in Europe using international mobility to increase their transnational socio-economic networks and augment their class position. We also see large numbers of skilled migrants venturing overseas on less structured journeys of advancement. This advancement involves a different balance of social, cultural and economic capital to the corporate professional, but is nevertheless important in middle-class reproduction and internal distinction." Scott, S. (2006). The social morphology of skilled migration: The case of the British middle class in Paris. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies32(7), 1105-1129.

Definitions of "middle-class" abound and differ according to the metric used: income, occupation, lifestyle.  I think of it as group that has some level of financial and social capital (family background, education, credentials, skills, assets) but not enough of these things to put them in the "upper class."    The children of the well-to-do don't have to get a university education (though they usually do at elite institutions at home or abroad) nor do they have to worry too much about where they will work because money, connections, the family business means that they will never be unemployed unless they choose to be.  The middle class, on the other hand, must think strategically - how to best use the resources they have to get a good education and/or a profession that is financially and psychologically satisfying.  For the children of the middle-class some kind of paid employment is rarely optional; it is necessary in order to pay for housing, raise a family, and retire in relative comfort wherever they live.

Middle-class status in the home and the destinations countries, I contend, affects migration in many ways.

Temporary versus permanent: Temporary migration is a strategy that seeks to increase one's capital back in the home country.  The "Big OE"  overseas experience like study or work abroad can confer important social capital.   It can lead to better higher-status work at home. For example, a writer that spends a couple of years in Paris finances his stay doing childcare and writes until he is noticed back home and gets a job there based on his Parisian experience. Paying off credit cards or student loans is another possibility and many graduates go abroad to do this with the intention of coming home with less debt or savings. These are called "target earners" since they plan to leave once they have achieved their financial goal. However, the overall goal of the sojourners here is to maximize whatever benefit there is to being abroad  and leverage that capital to make a better life at home.

Those who come to settle in the new country are thinking more long-term (but not necessarily permanent).   Their intention is to leverage their capital into something that will provide them with a decent living in the host country.  Their middle-class status in the home country can mean that they are reluctant to take on work that would lower their status in either country. Furthermore, they have a model of "success" or upward mobility in the home country (one that is entirely relative) that they try to replicate in their new home.  What is most important here is that do this with limited resources and social capital which doesn't always translate very well.  They can not afford to stay in the host country without working or being with a spouse or partner who is working.  They may also not be in a position to move back if it doesn't work out:  the sheer cost of moving a household, the uncertainty of the job market in the home country, medical problems, family obligations are all things that may limit further mobility.

Different Skills,  Different Outcomes:  The "skilled" migrant is often defined by level of education with a BA or some tertiary education being the lower limit.  This ignores the enormous differences in universities, degrees, experience, and credentials. There are migrants with home country degrees in business, finance, medicine, engineering and science and there are those with classics, philosophy, political science and the like.  A basic liberal arts degree may be worth just as little in the destination job market as it was at home unless it's from an internationally recognized elite school.  I would argue that most middle-class migrants from developed and developing countries leave with higher levels of education than unskilled migrants, but where they went to school and what they studied still matters.  Anyone with Internet access can look up the Shanghai ratings and company HRs may have their own internal ranking with preferences for specific schools in the host country or abroad.  So those middle-class migrants from better schools in sought after fields have an edge.

This clearly translates into different outcomes in the destination country.  Those who come from other schools may have to fight even harder to get work that is commensurate with their education because they probably don't have native-level language skills or the right connections.  There are different strategies to overcome these things.  Some decide to open their own businesses or to go freelance.  Others find occupations where the employer doesn't care about what the migrant studied, only that he or she has a BA in order to get a work visa.   Another, interestingly enough, is to lie or to forge credentials.  This assumes that the employer in the host country won't or can't check.  All of these strategies have one thing in common;  they may or may not pay well but there is a higher level of risk:  a business can fail, freelancers may not find enough clients, a person with a generic BA can be replaced with another cheaper person with a generic BA and fraud might not only get him/her fired, it can put his immigration status in jeopardy.

Social Mobility:  Some middle-class migrants go abroad with the intention of moving down the class ladder.  They are looking for a lifestyle, not professional or social advancement. And yet, very few, in my experience, go to work in a factory or clean houses.  Instead they write, translate, teach, organize tours, open a bar/restaurant or just go back to the home country periodically to save enough money to return abroad.  Other middle-class migrants are content if they can just maintain their home country status in the host country:  a good "white-collar" or "pink-collar" job with benefits; a house or apartment that they own; enough pay to raise a family, save for retirement, and send the children to university.  In some cases the host country offers more possibilities for these things than the home country did.  Social-welfare programs vary widely among nation-states and depending on the migrant's situation, there may be more security and a greater likelihood that his or her children will also be middle-class or more.  And then there are those with ambitions; they want to do better than they would have done in the home country.  Moving is all about upward mobility:  starting a business in a place that favors entrepreneurship, marrying someone with a higher status and more resources, becoming an itinerant cosmopolitan "creative."

Redefining Successful Migration:  Somewhere in the middle-class migrant's mind is an ideal of the "successful" migrant and the fear of being seen as a "failure."  In some countries and cultures just moving abroad immediately confers status if the person is from a middle-class background. (Elites moving about is just, well, "normal.")  However, that status is precarious because as more and more other middle-class people migrate, it becomes less about the fact the migrants moved and more about what he or she did when she got there and settled.

There is a certain amount of defensiveness that creeps in when family or friends back home question how well they really are doing.  They feel that they must constantly justify their decision to move and stay.  I have to wonder if those who come from countries of immigration don't have a very difficult time with this.  Their middle-class status in the home country may be a result of centuries of immigration based on a perceived ideal that immigrants and their children are supposed to do better with each generation - from cleaning houses to small business owner, from SBO to law or medicine, from professional status to politician, high-level executive, CEO and so on.  There is a clear connection in this ideal between geographic mobility and social and professional upward mobility.

Middle-class migrants do not always do better and this is extremely embarrassing in both the host and home countries.  In the home country there is wonder that the migrant has somehow squandered a wonderful opportunity; in the host country it feels just as bad to struggle to achieve one's personal goals as it would at home.  "Going back" is seen as failure.

That kind of pressure leads migrants to redefine "success."  Instead of money or status, they point to other things they have done:  learned a language and a new culture, made friends, married, found a job they like even if it isn't something that they had ever aspired to do and doesn't "go anywhere."  They extol the virtues of the host country compared to home.  And they very rarely openly discuss the challenges, dissatisfactions, frustrations they experience abroad.  That would be handing ammunition to those who questioned the move in the first place and think that the migrant should return.

My take on this is that we greatly overestimate the ability of the middle-class migrant to be successful in all respects in the host country.  Yes, they have more education and some skills but there is no guarantee that they have the right ones for where they are going.  But they have at least a BA and speak English.  How hard could it possibly be to get a really good job abroad?   It can be very hard, actually. There a millions of people around the world who speak English and more learning every day.  There is a much smaller number of people who went to a school in the Shanghai List Top 10.   Not to mention that a BA does not automatically mean an aptitude for languages or the ability to absorb culture or have a successful relationship.   Furthermore, my definition of middle-class it implies limited means.  These are people who do not have years to master the language and life in the new country before they hit the job market.

I am often frustrated at the lack of research on middle-class migrants.  It is just as interesting as the mobility of the unskilled versus the skilled or the poor versus the well to do.  Maybe more so because they are operating under multiple constraints.  They have resources but they are not unlimited and so they must be very flexible and very smart about how they leverage what they have versus what is possible in the destination countries.  And when it's migration from one developed country to another it is not obvious what constitutes a "better" life in financial or social terms.

In the old immigrant steamships passengers were divided up into classes with luxurious first class cabins, the bare minimum in steerage (third class) and the intermediate second class accommodations for those with a little money but not enough to pay for better.  Something like that, I think, still operates and I think it would be worth our time to stop our obsession with the very rich and the very poor and see what the invisible middle has to offer migration studies.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The French Election

There is something so perverse about a British immigrant to America weighing in on the election in France.  But, I enjoy John Oliver so much that I did watch his latest show.  The obligatory joke about the French eating snails didn't do much for me. Hello, stereotype!  (For the record I eat tasty snails with butter and garlic but we all know better than to eat the disease-carrying ones in the garden.)  It got funnier as he poked fun at the various candidates.  It became deadly serious for me when he profiled Marine Le Pen of the Front National. Nothing funny at all about Le Pen's program and you can read on-line her 144 Engagements Presidentiels. Number 27 would eliminate dual-nationality for those who do not come from another EU state.  Her target, of course, is the North Africans but it would also apply to Americans, Canadians, Brazilians,  Chinese and anyone else who doesn't come from a European member state.  I don't know if it would apply to people who are already dual citizens, but I think she'll go as far as she can if she's elected.

Oliver ends with an appeal in French which is indeed very funny because he has the most amazing.   accent. (He should have included subtitles in French as well as English.)   Can't argue with his take on the UK, US, and Le Pen though.

For your viewing pleasure today, here is the video from Youtube.  Once you've watched it, please head over to Arun with a View for some serious, well-written, informed posts on the candidates.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Aging Parents and International Marriage

"In other words, it is postulated that a semi-independent relation links the nuclear family to the extended family. Because the extended family cannot offer a complete guarantee of occupational success it legitimates the moves of nuclear family members. On the other hand, receiving as it does significant aid in achieving many of its goals, the nuclear family retains its extended family connections despite geographical distance." (Litwak, Eugene. “Geographic Mobility and Extended Family Cohesion.” American Sociological Review, vol. 25, no. 3, 1960, pp. 385–394.,

International Marriage is more than just the joining of two individuals from different nation-states, it also links two extended families in different countries and creates a web of kinship ties that transcend borders.  This can be seen as an opportunity for all since immigration laws that favor family reunification make it possible for other family members to migrate, too.  Remittances play a role as well with money being sent back to help family members in the home country.  In Klekowski von Koppenfel's study of Americans in Europe, she found that American migrants sent money to family in the US to help pay for unexpected expenses like medical care.

There is opportunity but there are also obligations.  Conflicts can and do arise when the couple must make decisions in favor of one extended family over the other.  The couple (unless they are very wealthy) simply can not provide personal care to two sets of aging parents living in two different countries. And while there may be general agreement that some assistance is necessary there can be arguments over just how many resources the nuclear family can afford to transfer to one or the other's elderly parents.

Where to live, where to send the children to school, what languages to speak in the home are all issues that are salient to a bi-national couple and some are mutually exclusive or just very difficult to achieve.  Caring for parents is one that is fraught with cultural expectations that neither spouse may be aware of until it becomes an issue.  In some countries (US, UK) older people are encouraged (and want) to be independent.  After a lifetime of caring for their children, they see retirement as freedom and don't want their children interfering in their lives. It is assumed by all that they will move into some sort of assisted living as they become less able to care for themselves.

Other countries and cultures have very different expectations.  Parents remain active in their children's lives (and vice versa) and they help raise their grandchildren. A retirement home is a last resort - the ideal is to grow old at home with one's children and grandchildren.  If the parents must be moved to a long-term care facility, it is still expected that  the adult children play a large role in their parents' care. (Spain, Japan).

To complicate matters even further, different countries have different approaches to care for the elderly.  Some countries like France or Sweden have state-provided services.  France has something called allocation personnalisée d'autonomie (APA) which is a subsidy for people over 60.  Sweden has similar subsidies and services. These things do not mean that family isn't involved in care, but it does mean that there are local resources to help the elderly whether they have family living nearby or not.  In other countries like Japan the state has had less of a role (this is changing) and families still provide a lot of care.  

These factors plus the distance or proximity of parents and limited financial resources make for some very hard decisions - decisions that involve both spouses and test their ability to be culturally aware and compromise.  A foreign spouse may be surprised to learn that she is responsible for caring for the husband's parents while her parents rely on state care at home..  Another may be shocked to be told that the spouse's parents are moving with them because "that's what we do here."  The native spouse may resent having to transfer money locally or abroad to help in-laws he or she hardly knows (or doesn't like very much).  In the event of a crisis one spouse may need to purchase plane tickets and have to leave for extended periods. There may even be strong pressure to return "home" with an equally strong reaction on the part of the other spouse to stay.  Gender certainly plays a part here since there may be more pressure on women to provide personal care, while men might feel more pressure to contribute financially.

Family connections are a social and biological fact, "family values" are not.   The cultural context is extremely important and even very well-integrated migrants may discover that their assumptions about how parents should be cared for when they can no longer care for themselves differ dramatically from that of their spouse.  Like other questions that require a projection into the future (where will we send the children to school?) most of us don't think about them until we must.  And thinking of our parents as aging and needing care is one that most of  us put off thinking about because we love them and want them to live forever.  However, this is one we should probably discuss with our spouses beforehand.  In my time here in Japan I have met migrants who married  under very explicit terms - that they would take care of the spouse's parents in the host country first and that they would never leave Japan for long periods.  That arrangement shows a foresight that many of us don't have.

I do wonder, however,  about the fairness of such deals.  Circumstances change.  A decision made when one is 30 may not be the same one he/she would make at 50.  For as our parents age, so do we.  And when they are gone, we may be the ones needing care one day from our children who may be just as far from us as we were from our parents.