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The American


Mythbusting the American Expat


W


hether it’s James Whistler, Ernest Hemingway or Jose-


phine Baker, there’s always been a certain romance about Americans abroad. But today, who are these Americans? How many are there? Why do they leave the US and what keeps them abroad? Do they behave like other migrant groups or does being a US expat provide special status? These are questions that occupy social scientist Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, an overseas Ameri- can and expert on international migration. Drawing on research for her book, Migrants or Expatriates? Americans in Europe, that involved hundreds of surveys and in depth interviews, her fi ndings challenge many of the most common myths about American expats, including whether we should be using the term “expat” at all. For starters, you might think that


we know how many Americans live outside the United States. In fact, we don’t. Estimates by the US State Department, World Bank and others vary from 2.2 to 8 million. There are many reasons for the wildly vary- ing estimates, but not being able to agree on the number adds complex- ity to the relationship between the United States and its overseas citi- zens. As accountants often claim, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.” And what about those images of


US expats as fats cats on temporary assignments? First, they’re not as rich


20 The American


as you might expect with 22.8% of Dr von Koppenfels’ survey respond- ents from the UK having an after tax household income of less than $50,000. Second, they’re not that ‘temporary’. As one London-based lawyer explained, “I came for one year and that was 18 ½ years ago.” And it’s not employment that is the top reason given for going abroad, but rather to be with a partner or to study. They’re not all investment bankers either with the largest group of interviewees in the UK working in IT (21.3%) followed by profes- sional, scientifi c and technical ser- vices (18.1%) and education (11.7%). Finance and insurance only came in fourth at 9.6%, and France and Ger- many have lower rates still. While overseas Americans do not seem to conform to the stereo- type, they do share many similari- ties with other migrant groups. Like most migrants, they retain the myth of return where they speak of their intention to go back to the US but never seem to do so. In fact, most overseas Americans are what Dr von Koppenfels calls accidental migrants. As one man put it in her book, “I never planned on staying here or anything like that. I just did, and home is where your junk collects…” Like other migrant groups, Amer-


icans stay active in political, cultural and socio-economic activities that link them with the United States such as Democrats and Republicans Abroad, alumni organizations and


lobbying groups such as American Citizens Abroad. They retain strong economic ties with the US with 75.8% retaining a US bank account, 17.8% owning US property and 47.8% donating to US charities. But as mentioned before, the


relationship between overseas Americans and the US government is a complicated one. In her most recent research, Dr von Koppen- fels has focused on what is behind the sharp increase in the number of overseas Americans giving up their US citizenship. Again, her fi nd- ings fl y in the face of the common perception that it is rich Americans who want to get out of paying tax. Instead, the research shows that US citizenship renunciation is not linked to income but rather to increasing reporting requirements, fear of dra- conian penalties and an inability to access fi nancial services in the host country. There is also the sense that the


US government is unfairly targeting its own overseas citizens. For exam- ple, one interviewee stated: “ I’m an American …I deeply resent being treated like a tax fraud or a drug lord.” And as another put it, “It is not a crime to live abroad and the US should not treat its expat citizens like criminals.” For many, the cost of compliance in terms of accountancy fees is unsus- tainable. “I can’t pay an accountant 2000 euros a year in order to pay the USA $0.00 in the end.” So even if living overseas throws


IMAGE ©ALEXI HOBBS


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