Monday, June 06, 2011

A surgical approach to desperation

Last night, I found myself in a tense discussion about drug-testing for welfare recipients. The ACLU is challenging the Florida law concerning this, as if the nearly universal consensus on the issue needed any further reinforcement.

But as I’ve said before, I’m against drug-testing of welfare recipients — at least insofar as they’re the ones singled out. If the purpose is to ensure that none of our tax money goes into drug habits, then we should simply test everyone who receives any government aid. In this regard, it makes no sense to arbitrarily scream for this particular (and relatively small) group to go under scrutiny while not demanding it of other groups that receive far more money and pose greater immediate dangers to national interests if drugged.

But again, I’m not so naive as to believe that emotion and prejudice don’t play into it. In fact, I think they’re the driving motivators, and the funds-for-drugs argument is just a front.

As Americans, we love to demonize people in need by lumping them in with their outliers. We picture every AFDC recipient as some welfare queen who is allergic to work, drives an expensive car and lives high on the hog. Ronald Reagan made this image iconic in the 1980s; whether or not it was true, it became the default image for American public assistance. Ever since then, social programs have taken such a severe image slam that it rarely occurs to anyone anymore that people really need this kind of help.

This stigma keeps us from addressing the government-waste issue in a logical, practical manner. Instead, it’s become a pissing contest, pitting the confident streams of the self-declared productive class against the shy bladders of the poorest, who are that way because they are lazy, period.

You have to admit that it’s satisfying to be the one looking down on the downtrodden, because it puts you in the position of success. You’re the one who’s working hard, paying taxes and, by God, doesn’t rely on anyone else to make ends meet. “I’ve got mine, so why don’t you get yours? Fix that mental tic in your brain that compels you to rob, do drugs and engage in other risky behavior! I’d never even think of doing those things! Why? Because I’m industrious and filled with the can-do American spirit, let me tell you!”

This attitude, as I’ve heard endlessly, brings me to what divides the successful from the worst-off among us — not ambition or human nature, but luck. Desperation makes people do things that they would never do with a clearer mind. A lot of us think we’re better, when in reality many of us are simply too insulated to ever have to weigh the issue. But the thing about human nature is, it doesn’t discriminate over what class of human you are. All it cares about is survival.

A decade ago, I came up with what I call the surgery analogy: the idea that nothing is too repulsive when the alternative is worse. Prior to age 21, my only surgical experience involved getting two stitches in the back of my head when I was 6, and that was a painless outpatient procedure. But at 21, I found myself facing back surgery due to a severely blown spinal disc. The idea of full-on invasive surgery, with anesthesia and an overnight hospital stay (not to mention the resultant bill) abhorred me. That is, until the pain from my back and leg reached a level so intense that I couldn’t move or even stand up straight without excruciating agony.

(And believe me, few things are more painful than a pinched nerve. Certainly nothing I’ve ever experienced. Sciatica is especially evil because it shoots unimaginable pain through a completely healthy appendage — in my case, my right leg. When the pain relapsed in 2008, I couldn’t lie in bed without hearing the pain scream. Yes, it literally screamed in my head, like a loud concert rings in your ears afterward. And I didn’t even need surgery then.)

Up to that point, the idea of getting myself cut open seemed like a nauseating notion. Why go through that? What ever would compel me to agree to that?

With my back and leg pain, I got my answer. Suddenly, the idea of not eating or drinking after midnight, putting on a hospital gown, taking a combination of valium and morphine prior to full-on anesthesia, then conking out to have someone cut into my lower back didn’t sound so bad. In fact, it seemed like the most logical thing to do. Something to look forward to, even. Would I have objected before? Yes. Would I want to do it again once the pain was gone? Of course not. But at the time? Hell yes!

And I think the surgery analogy drives most desperate behavior. People who would otherwise never do so swiping bread from an abandoned store after a natural disaster wipes out everything they have and help has yet to come. Drug addicts who commit crimes to obtain enough currency for a fix. People who rely on government aid because it’s their last line of sustenance. And so on.

I doubt most of these people do it because they’re vile humans who like to commit crimes and/or bilk the government for kicks. That certainly doesn’t condone illegal behavior, but we have to understand it to combat it. Chances are, they’re not thinking straight because of hunger, drug addiction, poverty or lack of education. The answer is not to demonize these people (they certainly won’t vanish if we offer no support), but to get at the root of the underlying problems.

We as a nation need to make a much larger investment in public schools, so that everyone (regardless of neighborhood) has at least an opportunity at a substantial education. Then we need to have jobs. And have those jobs pay a living wage, so that they’re worth aspiring to. We need to stop treating drug use as a crime and start treating it as a disease. If we’re serious about our citizens being self-sufficient and productive, we have to work on shattering the crippling barrier of addiction, rather than just wagging our finger.

That might all seem obvious, but I’m not convinced given our political priorities that they’re even close to obvious. We have a long way to go toward removing our prejudices, self-righteousness and the primal need to punish from our policies.

I can see how this might be an unpopular idea. At least until the day when the pain becomes too great.


blainegm said...

Pain is weakness leaving the body !!!

Jason said...

I think one of the most relevant facts pertaining to "welfare" rolls is simply the availability of real family-life sustaining jobs. The specific percentages of decline are available as it pertains to median wage and job availability, but I think anyone but the most skeptical of conservatives would agree that our country is now working harder, producing more for less money.

The typical response of welfare cynics is to state that there are jobs out there if you a person really wants to work. Well this may be 100% true in the most literal sense, but you simply can not support a family and achieve the basic desires of the common American person by working these jobs. No I don't mean everyone has to have XBox 360 in every room of the house and half a dozen plasma tv's and so on. I just mean reasonable working hours, medical coverage, enough disposable income to spend at least some weekly quality time with your family, etc...

This type of thing is harder and harder to find. Take me for example. I'm a teacher. I grossed about $39,500 last year (it's public record, so I don't mind throwing it out there). I have a B.A. plus about 24 hours of grad/certification work in to make that amount of money. It's a paltry sum. Thank God my wife is also educated and works, but we have both racked up a reasonable amount of student loan debt to get where we are. Now with a son, and daycare it is even more expensive.

My point is not to bemoan my life. I wouldn't do anything else for a living. I could and make significantly more money, but I would have to give up satisfaction with my job and family time which is not worth it at all to me. My point is simply to say even with large amounts of effort and investments of time and money it is extremely difficult to make a satisfactory living.

I can in some ways understand how a person might say F-it! and simply attempt to remain on public assistance rolls while earning side money. I can even see how they may justify attempting to game the system and double dip and such. I don't condone it, and in the long run, it isn't right or beneficial to them. I'm just saying I can understand it, and if a reasonable living wage was more attainable in this country, this wouldn't be such a large problem.

Sorry for the long rant, but definitely a subject of interest for me.

Ian McGibboney said...

Jason, you make great points. Though I guess "paltry" is all about perspective. You make $10,000 more than I've ever made. On the other hand, I don't have any student debt, and my only real obligation is an $1,800 car note.

Still, the point's the same — people need jobs that take away incentive to pursue a living through more illicit and violent means. Until we have that, we're always going to have a huge swath of the country racked with crime.

Jason said...

Absolutely Ian. Accessibility of reasonable income is key. Perspective for sure, but it really is sad that two individuals such as ourselves should have to compare such salaries at all. I know for a fact that you have extensive and well-rounded education. You are intelligent, hard-working and creative.

It shouldn't be difficult for a citizen in this country to secure a real living wage with those type of attributes. It is though. It took me years of food service work, retail management, etc... to finish school and certification to get where I am now, and it is still a far cry from what someone who spent that same amount of time getting their M.B.A or finance degree will start at not to mention finish with.

Our society has a real issue with over-valuing particular fields while marginalizing others that are just as important.