Monday, November 5

Poverty: What Now?




Let me start by saying that, for a lot of people, it's going to get worse.

I don't mean it's going to get worse before it gets better.

I don't mean it's going to get worse unless we elect a Democratic president.

I mean it's going to get worse.

I'm not making a prediction here.

I'm just going with the odds.

What does this mean?

It's simple.

On Tuesday night, I attended one of the many forums Vermont is holding around the state on childhood poverty. There was a panel represented by a range of people, some of whom help distribute resources and some of whom are recipients of public assistance. Doug Racine (whom, incidentally, I think should run for governor again, but I'll talk about that in a whole other post) led the forum, discussing its goals as to reduce childhood poverty by 50% in Vermont over the next ten years.

And you know, I think we can do this. When we put our minds to creative solutions, we can find ways to transform our world. We can harness the power of children playing to run water pumps. We're very clever this way, and we're capable of introducing great change. And if we have the will, we can do it.

But in the meantime, many of us are struggling. Gas prices are going up. Medicine is getting more expensive. Food is becoming more expensive and use of ethanol may make it worse. The Water situation is not good.

And, really, most people do get by and manage, through various means, to tread water, for a good chunk of their lives. But for each and every one of those people, it only takes one significant event to kick them hard in the gut and force them into the ream of requiring public support or some other form of assistance.

And really, even that's a misnomer. We all receive public assistance. Do you use public roads without paying a toll? Congratulations. You're on public assistance. Are you using the internet right now? (hint: the answer is "yes"). You're receiving a public benefit. Yes. Even if you're paying for internet access, you're still receiving a subsidized benefit. Do you buy food with the hopes that it will be safe? That's because there are public officials who, in theory, regulate the production, storage and distribution of food. That way, we don't have to have a major salmonella breakout in order to find out that a company is using poor food practices.

These are public benefits for the public good. When someone tells you that it's wrong to take public benefits or that they've never had to receive any help from anyone and have made it all on their own, you know they're either lying or completely self-deceptive. We all receive public benefits.

From a financial standpoint, I'm doing reasonably well. I have a savings account with a decent buffer and I have the resources to pay my rent for four months in advance at a time. So I know that even if I were to lose a major client, I'd be fine for the immediate future and I have the skills and creativity that I could probably find work again long before my money were to run out.

One of the things I've learned in the last few years is that going from near poverty to a really nice income changes your perspective and changes your ability to allocate resources. When it came to buying a new washing machine, I chose the best one I could find: it was more energy efficient and would last longer. While other people end up getting washers which are more expensive in the long run, I can afford to buy one that's more expensive up front but much cheaper over the next ten years. Similarly, I could afford to buy a hybrid vehicle, meaning that while a lot of people I know are getting 25-35 mpg, I'm getting 45-55, making my fuel costs dramatically lower.

These options aren't available to people without as many resources.

The way my insurance works, there's an up front deductible. I have to pay $1500 out of pocket before the insurance starts paying for everything and, when it comes to medicine, I still have to pay up front and then I get reimbursements down the line. One of the medicines I'm required to take in order to prevent my diabetes from causing me long-term damage costs over $200/month. I can afford that, especially knowing that I'll get that money back. When I accidentally lost a supply of medicine once (left it on top of my car and drove off. Clever), it cost me $250 to replace it, and that was out of pocket.

When my car got broken into and much of my camera equipment was stolen, it ended up costing me over $1500 to replace, and insurance only reimbursed $500 of that. The cost of repairing the broken window was below the deductible, so that came entirely out of my pocket.

So I'm out these chunks of money and they're not painless, but they're not debilitating either.

But I think about this, and how these events would have affected me when I was making less than $20k/year. And really, the only reason I've got the work I have now is because I lucked into it. I got hired for a short-term contract, which led to a long term contract, which led to other contracts. One minor change in luck and this never would have happened. I'd still be living near the poverty level and I'd be in that situation where I made too much money to receive health benefits but too little money to afford my own health care. I'd be going on lower doses of medications in order to make them last longer, significantly affecting my long-term health and I'd have less control over my eating habits, opting for crap instead of good wholesome food, affecting my health once again and significantly impacting my quality of life.

This is the every day scenario for people in poverty. You need a medication or you need food so you make your choices. You need a car, so you find the clunker which constantly needs work and gets crappy mileage but it's what you can afford, so you just never have the time to build up savings and every little thing that happens makes things worse.

If you add a child into the equation, it gets worse, just in terms of simple allocation of resources.

Now imagine that you're not in poverty and that you have some means at your disposal, but you're keeping afloat. But you have to make choices. Get the better health insurance or live in the better neighborhood. Get the lower deductible for your car insurance or get the better school for your kids.

And you make choices the best you can, but then something happens. It could be anything. You're laid off. Your kid has diabetes. Your or your spouse gets into an accident and needs four months of physical therapy. Your house gets broken into. Some of what you lose can be recovered but not all.

So you have to make more complicated choices and things get tighter.

And then gas prices go up and you have to decide between the really good job that pays better and comes with great benefits but costs you an extra $50/month for the commute or the crappy job that's near where you live that doesn't pay as well and doesn't come benefits that are really as nice.

Or you've got a great job with great benefits and the company just decides that those benefits are too expensive.

And things get tighter.


Sometimes we luck out. Sometimes, in the midsts of all these difficult things, something gets better. We luck into a new job. We buy a lottery ticket and win $5k. We inherit something from a wealthy relative we'd forgotten we had.

But, mostly, it just gets tighter.

And then, when we do need care, we go to the emergency room, because our insurance won't provide for pre-screening.

And that's more expensive.

For everybody.

So things get tighter.

For everybody.

And then there's a drought in Georgia. And Florida and Georgia fight over how to handle it because now they're competing for precious resources.

And things get tighter.

For everybody.

So we've got this situation, with multiple levels of poverty causing multiple problems for people across the board. We've got this squeezing out the poor and the middle class and, whether they understand it or not, it will eventually squeeze out all but the richest of us. Those that have means which are so significant as to be almost untouchable will probably be generally fine, but even then won't have a food supply which is necessarily safe.

In the meantime, there are steps we can take that might not necessarily solve the problem but can, at the very least, help:

  • Universal health care. Until we're willing to see to it that everyone is fully covered (regardless of citizenship or legal status), we risk immense problems. Early screening and careful monitoring of health trends makes us safer as a country and as individuals.

  • Loans and grants for community resource projects. Providing resources to communities to build recycling centers, health clinics, composting systems and public transportation reduces strain on individual families and communities.

  • Creative energy systems. Imagine what we could do if we used the motion of people walking on subway platforms to help power the subways themselves. Imagine what we could do if we made a serious effort to invest in projects that find ways to take existing resources and make better use of them.

  • Invest heavily in early education. Research shows, time and time again, that early education is of immense benefit, not just to children, but to society as a whole.

  • Get Over It. People often seek public assistance when they don't want to. They receive social stigma for it. They're treated like dirt for doing so. We need to start respecting that people who receive public assistance don't want to be on public assistance and would avoid it if they could and just get them the help they need instead of constantly treating them like there's something wrong with them that could be solved if they simply worked harder.

What are your ideas for what we can do to improve upon things? How can we change our government, our people, our planet, to encourage true change that releases us from poverty? Where do we go from here?

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