Being Poor Is Not a Crime, But We Treat It Like One
Posted by hyperpat on September 6, 2006
John Scalzi, the author who just won the Campbell Award and who had one of his novels on the short list for the Hugo, wrote an essay on being poor a year ago, in the aftermath of Katrina. That piece, and some 700 comments, are posted on his Whatever blog here. I highly recommend that if you haven’t read this piece yet, you do so now. And read the comments – this might take you awhile, but I can almost guarantee that when you finish you will have:
Some very moist eyes
A much better understanding of what being poor in America is like
An urge to do something about the conditions described
Have I ever been poor? No. There have been times when I had to literally count pennies, there were days when I had zero dollars and rent coming due, but I’ve never had to go hungry, never had to make a choice between putting food on the table or paying the power bill, never had to wear Goodwill clothing, never had to use a medical clinic instead of seeing my doctor. Oh, I had a few times when I had to collect unemployment, and one four month stretch when there simply were no jobs to be had, and during that period I had to dedicate all the money I had to just rent and food, but these are picayune things compared to the situations described in that set of blog comments.
One thing that comes through those comments loud and clear is the sense of embarrassment that so many of these people feel. Embarrassed that they are in that situation, when in most cases it was entirely beyond their control. This, perhaps, is what we need to try and fix. Those of us who are better off can always make donations, can go down to the community help center and provide some labor to help get things to people who desperately need them, can ‘adopt’ a family in need and see that they at least have the basics. But how do we get rid of that sense that everyone looks down on them simply because they are poor? The current mess of food stamps is guaranteed to cause embarrassment in the check out line, with all the government red tape that causes considerable extra time to process and all of its restrictions on just what can be bought with those stamps, while everyone else waiting in line scrutinizes the person and purchases, sure that here is another example of someone ‘working the system’ and taking their tax dollars, when if they would just go out and get a job —
Sometimes they can’t get a job. Sometimes they are working two jobs and it still doesn’t pay enough to properly feed, clothe, and house their family.
Step one is to quit looking down your nose at people in such situations. Sure, there are some who are gaming the system, but most are there through no choice of their own. And you could be there yourself – all would take is one little downsizing, and after a few months of looking for a job while what savings you have disappear, and not finding anything that pays even close to what you used to make, taking anything to bring in a few dollars, and finding that’s not enough, and that this downward spiral has no end.
Step two is to make it possible for those receiving assistance to do so without having to let the whole world know they are. Get them a special debit card, where their purchases get charged against their assistance account, and get rid of the restrictions on what types of things they can purchase with that account. Use that same type of card to allow them to make clothes purchases at discounted prices. Make it possible for their children in school to get their lunches just like everyone else – why does everyone have to know that Johnny is getting free lunches because he’s so poor?
Step three is to provide basic health and dental care for everyone. If you’re sick, you can’t work, and currently the price of medical care for anyone who doesn’t have insurance is prohibitive. This may sound like an advocation of socialism, and to some degree it is. But in the end, having a healthy population benefits everyone, and being able to go see the doctor about a problem before it turns into a major catastrophe would actually end up saving everyone money. How this is set up needs very careful thought, such that we don’t just create another huge government bureaucracy that fritters away your taxes in administrative costs while adding paperwork barriers to actual medical access or driving doctors into some other field because they aren’t paid properly for their labor, but somehow the richest nation on earth should be able to do this!
Read that essay. Think about it. Help.