Down with the dollar: standard of living declines for families overseas

By Peter Slavin
Lawrence I. Charters, contributor

Army Times, July 7, 1986, pp. 57-65
Navy Times, July 7, 1986, pp. 57-65

We’re paying 200,000 yen a month for housing, and my allowance ia 164,000. When we first signed the lease, that was $800, and now it is $1200.
— Lt. Cmdr. Mary Ellen Quinn, a single parent in Yokosuka, Japan

The deterioration in the dollar’s value has occurred throughout the world but has been greatest in Germany and Japan, and so has the corresponding shock to American families. The dollar bought 3.35 German marks in March 1985, but in late June bought only about 2.20. In Japan, it could be converted to 260 yen in March 1985, but recently bought only 165. These changes have been the equivalent of a jump in prices for Americans upwards of 40 percent.

The situations are not the same in the two countries, however. Japan has long been an expensive place to live for Americans, and the past year has simply made the squeeze worse. In Germany, by contrast, the dollar has been so strong in recent years that things where cheap compared to the States; Americans could live handsomely. In the last year, Americans in Germany have not so much suffered hardship as lost that cushion, the bonus conferred by being paid in dollars. If Japan has long been a financial trial for Americans, Germany is kind of paradise lost.

Report from Japan

Even when the dollar was healthy, living in Japan is expensive and difficult. The housing market is tight and the houses tiny by American standards. Few homes are insulated, and utility prices are so high that most service families can’t afford to heat or cool them. Many families are forced to adopt Japanese, diets, because common American foods, such as beef, are so expensive.

There are few married service members in Japan lower than E-4 and few dependents there without command sponsorship. This may be just as well, for ignorance of the language puts most jobs on the economy out of reach for Americans. Japanese and U.S. law further discourages their working. Jobs on base are also difficult to line up.

Free-lance writer Lawrence Charters talked to some military people in Japan.

Some Americans in Japan are bitter about the financial hardships. “All of my paycheck goes to rent and bills…,” said Navy E-4 Lori Jensen. “I’d like to punch Congress in the face. It seems to me they’re screwing with us over here.”

Equally angry was a Navy E-3 whose wife and son are not command-sponsored. He refused to allow the use of his name. About the dollar’s decline, he said, “They ought to put it on posters, ‘Join the Navy and go broke.’”

His family lives in an uninsulated, one-bedroom apartment. “My wife bought a gas heater, and only later they told her kerosene was cheaper,” he explained.

“This chief yells at me for taking the wrong bus, says the other one’s faster and cheaper. How am I supposed to know? I don’t have a Japanese wife. I can’t read this ——. So for three months I’m paying 330 yen each day, when I could pay 180 yen.”

Billy Williams, deputy director of the family service center at the naval base at Yokosuka, said fluctuations in the exchange rate cause anxiety in newcomers to Japan. “With a stable [dollar to] yen rate at least they could plan for certain monies coming in every payday and what they’d have to pay out.”

Rent is a burden for some. Lt. Cmdr. Mary Ellen Quinn, who lives off base with her two children, originally was paying $140 a month beyond her allowance for rent. She wanted to experience Japanese culture and didn’t want to disrupt her family by moving into government quarters. But owing to the dollar’s devaluation she now pays $300 a month out-of-pocket. “It’s a psychological defeat,” she says.

Quinn does not believe COLA covers all her increases in other expenses. “To get the quality of life we have back in America, we get nowhere near the compensation.”

Navy E-4 Tim Heir said for some of his shipmates “rent has really jumped. By the time the [housing supplement] comes through, it’s six months down the road.”

An Air Force lieutenant who did not want his name used said single airmen had the roughest time. “They can’t afford to go anywhere, so they sit around and drink…I’m supposed to yell at some airman with a hangover and tell him he should be going to some temple or something? Gas is what, $3 a gallon? And it costs a fortune to ride the trains or taxis. These guys are prisoners on base.

“People fight to go out on assignment now. Let’s face it, any place is cheaper than here. Tokyo’s the most expensive city in the world.”

According to Capt. Linda Balink-White, director of the Yokosuka family service center, “Just to go to Tokyo, have a simple meal with someone, and come back can coast [the two people] $50.”

SSgt. Joe LaVoie was upset by the price of produce. The commissary, he said, “doesn’t have much in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. They expect you to get those from off post.” The Navy E-3 said, “This little place down the street wants 6,000 yen [$36] for cantaloupe. I thought it was the whole box, but that’s just one.”

The weakness of the dollar is easier for some old Japanese hands to take. Said Harriet Willis, the wife of a Navy captain, “The yen rate isn’t a shock to us; we were here in 1978-80, when it was 180 or so. We knew what to expect.”

But she says of the current rate, “It was already expensive, and now it’s outrageous at 33 percent more.”

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