I was reading Barbara Ehrenreich's piece in the NY Times yesterday and it reminded me of some difficult times I went through not so long ago. This was about a year after my divorce--I was a 27 year old underemployed college sophomore getting the max in student loans (and immediately turning over more than half to my ex-wife for child support, which I never missed), living in a run-down fraternity house. I couldn't drive legally--I'd fallen into the very scenario Ehrenreich described in her piece:
Or suppose you miss a payment and, before you realize it, your car insurance lapses; then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight. Depending on the state, you may have your car impounded or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” said Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”For me, it was an expired inspection sticker, which I could have gotten had I not needed proof of insurance, which I could have had if I hadn't needed to eat every month. I was so broke at one point that I cashed a check for $25 on campus that I knew would bounce because I knew they'd take it out my next Pell Grant six weeks later, and that money would buy me enough ramen noodles (Wal-Mart brand, natch) to feed me in the interim. During this point, I got mugged on my way home from work, which meant that I not only lost my only legal mode of transportation (my bicycle), but also my wallet, so I lost all my identification as well.
I'm not telling this story to moan about how bad I had it once. Honestly, I was lucky--I never had to sleep outside, and I never missed a meal (though some meals were less satisfying than most). Getting around was a pain, but I lived close to campus and close to friends I worked with, so while I was inconvenienced, I wasn't screwed. And slowly, my situation improved--I got better hours and started serving, so I got tip money. The next set of financial aid came in and I found a roommate in a cheaper place. I got my truck legal again and that expanded my opportunities for work and I found a second job. I wasn't on Easy Street, but I was making it.
But I was lucky. If I had been hit with one more setback while I was down, I might be homeless today. If that setback had been a medical problem, I'd really have been screwed. It wasn't some strength of character that made it possible for me to bounce out of that situation, nor was it my brilliant and incisive mind--the older I get the more I realize just how un-brilliant I am. It was luck.
My story's a joke compared to the ones Ehrenreich talks about in her piece: the homeless veteran arrested for being homeless; the homeless man who did time for a felony he committed when he was 15 but can't find a job now; the children who can't get to school on time because of bus cutbacks who are arrested for being truant. It's not bad enough that we have a crappy social safety net in this country--we have to dump more troubles on the backs of the poor, it seems.
One digression: there's a Facebook poll going around right now that just depresses me--it asks whether or not people who receive food stamps and welfare should be forced to pass a mandatory drug test. I haven't clicked on it because I know what the results will be; it's too easy to shit on people at the bottom of the economic pile. My view is that if your life is so crappy that you're forced onto welfare or food stamps--and believe me, applying for that kind of aid is difficult and shaming (the people who work in the offices, consciously or not, make you feel like dirt for being there)--I don't blame you for wanting to get high once in a while to escape your problems. But our attitude as a society seems to be that if you're poor, it's your own fault, and so you don't get to escape your sins by getting a little pleasure. (Most of the people who make this argument have never missed a meal unwillingly.)
Which is why, last night, I found myself getting angry at people who argue that health care is not a right. If we want to argue over the mechanism we use to make sure everyone in this country has access to health care, that's fine--Medicare for everyone, public-private hybrid, whatever. But if you're arguing that there's a class of people in this country (including undocumented workers) whose only access to health care ought to be emergency room care (which isn't free, by the way), then you fail at life. You're a bad human being, because you lack simple, basic empathy. You fail because you don't understand that the only thing different between you, living your comfortable life, and the homeless person on the street is luck, whether it's luck in good health or decent education or living conditions or simply the opportunity to succeed. You got lucky, and they didn't. It's that simple.