The needless suffering all around us

My wife is volunteering at the local survival center. Twice a week during the dinner hour she volunteers there, helping to serve 40 to 80 families (sometimes more) survive during her shift.

The center takes all comers, so the undocumented and homeless are served. It’s not mostly these people that the center serves though. It’s neighbors who look a lot like me, but unlike me (I’m largely retired) they are working. They work whatever they can get and whenever they can. There are virtually no freeloaders that come through their doors.

Our community is not unique. About eleven percent of the population is food insecure. Thank goodness the survival center keeps them from starvation. That’s because these days you can’t count on much if anything from the government. That’s because Ronald Reagan convinced Americans that welfare queens driving Cadillacs were using food stamps to buy steaks. For forty years the Republican Party (and to some extent Democrats like Bill Clinton) have been making it harder and harder for people to simply survive.

Some of these people are homeless, but most are not. Most of their income is going to keeping a roof over their heads. Housing prices keep going up and almost all of them rent because they can’t afford to buy a home. Demand can’t keep up with supply, and certainly their wages can’t, so they are squeezed.

I live in Massachusetts which is reasonably progressive. Our minimum wage is currently $11/hour, and will rise to $15/hour by 2023. Still, it’s clear that this amount does not come close to providing a living wage.

Most of the people at the survival center are working two or more jobs, and it’s still not enough. Lots have dependents. An increasing minimum wage helps, but it is being raised slowly. The sorts of jobs these people work rarely pay much more than the minimum wage. That’s because despite low overall unemployment rates, the pool of relatively unskilled labor is still pretty high, so employers usually don’t have much of a problem filling these jobs. Our area is somewhat rural. Aside from some colleges and one university, there isn’t a whole lot of higher paying jobs.

What often tips the balance for these people is unemployment or health costs. Probably the biggest variable is unexpected health costs. The good news is that it’s hard to be uninsured in Massachusetts, as the Affordable Care Act was based largely on our program. The bad news is that most of these plans are still not that affordable. Since it’s required, they usually buy high deductible plans. While they often get catastrophic protection, in some ways its a worse system: they must pay for health plans they cannot really afford, plus they pay huge deductibles before they can get what are largely catastrophic benefits. These deductibles can wipe out the money for things like paying the rent or buying groceries. It also puts them on a treadmill of getting by, if you can call it that.

In short, the standard of living they require simply to get by is not close to what society is willing to pay them to let them achieve it. A lot of these people end up at the survival center because they run out of government benefits. And every year, our betters make things worse. Just yesterday, the Trump administration announced it is finalizing rules that will amount to kicking 700,000 more people off of food stamps.

It’s being done by changing the criteria of how high a state’s unemployment rate must be for it to get a federal waiver. Right now these SNAP benefits cannot exceed three months over 3 years for an individual without being enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month, so if that happens these people are already at risk of homelessness and hunger. With the new rules, states could not seek a waiver unless their unemployment rate was at least six percent.

It’s based on the assumption that these people are lazy welfare queens who could easily get a job when in fact the vast majority are already working. In fact, most work a lot more than the rest of us. Most of the rest of us probably could not endure the superhuman amount of effort it takes for these people to survive. Without food stamps, they have to depend on their local survival center and hope there is food. My wife sees these people every day she volunteers. Fortunately, there are many giving individuals and organizations in the area willing to step up when the government clearly won’t. We give them $100 a month, in addition to volunteer work.

Prescription drug costs can also be killer costs. Recently, I sent $50 to an online friend, Jeff, whose state of Utah won’t provide Medicaid benefits. He’s currently homeless, living with a friend and despite having two jobs he can’t afford the $500 his specialized diabetes medicine costs. This is merely the most critical of his costs because he has other high cost prescriptions he needs and can’t afford because he is uninsured. He has no place to call home and his infrastructure crumbling around him. His car is giving out. He keeps looking for a cheap apartment, but there are none, at least not requiring very long drives from Salt Lake City. Oh, and he’s recently divorced, has a transgender teen and his ex expects him to pay for child support.

He’s hardly alone. I recently documented my friend Tom’s situation, which thankfully is not as dire at Jeff’s. They’re all over my community and they are all over yours too. All because those with money are largely in charge, they think these people are lazy, and they don’t want to contribute a dime to help them escape their misery or even keep them from going hungry. Ironically, a lot of these people are virulently pro-life.

These same people also tend to believe that we live in the greatest country. If we did, we wouldn’t tolerate the poverty and suffering of our fellow citizens.

No wonder candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have such support. Republicans are clueless, but the rest of us understand this suffering. We insist on a decent society that doesn’t allow it. For those of us who haven’t experienced it, we feel its closeness, knowing we are one job loss away from entering this hell.

It’s largely all because we allowed our energies and productivity to go to stockholders instead of the people whose sweat earned these profits. Moreover, we let people lead us who cut us off at the kneecaps. They turned our states into right-to-work states, which makes it hard for unions to form, but easier to give employers the upper hand.

As this Trump proposal demonstrates, there is no end to the level of cruelty Republicans will inflict on us to put yet more money into their pockets at our expense. If you are looking for a revolution, they may get one sooner than they expect. And they may be the ones found beneath the local hanging tree.