Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Conservatism is Often Less than Compassionate

Flying somewhat underneath the radar this week has been a controversial remark made by South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer (R). Last week, the Lt. Governor of the Palmetto State made a particularly toxic and highly offensive remark regarding the nature of assistance programs designed to aid the poor and disabled.

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."

I've mentioned this before, I know, but at that instant my mind couldn't help but flash back to a particular quote made by Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are tight pu**y, loose shoes, and a warm place to s**t.

I think conservatives assume that welfare services and the safety nets provided to those living at or near the poverty line are some kind of all-you-can-eat buffet line whereby some dubiously defined underclass can stuff themselves silly on taxpayer funded giveaways. The most obvious response to this is, of course, that they are desperately needed, often life-saving, otherwise unavailable options which those with adequate means already have and as such frequently take for granted. But for some reason this isn't sufficient enough in and of itself to satisfy the concerns of the average GOP voter or elected official, so perhaps a description of the incredible limitations of welfare agencies needs to be noted once more. As you will see, one can either decry them as money drains or lament their inefficiency, but certainly not both.

Social service agencies and welfare services are almost always underfunded, meaning that they are also almost always understaffed. Without enough manpower to answer phones, attend to daily business, and keep things running smoothly, the average applicant must be persistent and also must be his or her own advocate. Often it is necessary to spend hours on the phone attempting to find someone who either knows to even be connected to a competent worker who has had enough experience with the system to know how to properly process a claim or initiate a service. Those who lack the patience or the time are often left out altogether. The working poor don't have the luxury of being able to devote more than a small fraction of their time to sign up for basic services and have to divide their attention among demanding, often thankless jobs, and the constant time and energy drain that is known as parenthood. Those with families and dependents often are the ones who need these services the most, but can't carve out extra time in already busy, over-booked schedules. Regarding food stamps, which supply one of the most basic of all human needs, what transpires often is that deserving individuals don't have the time to come into an office or wait for hours, or have great difficulty scheduling a block of time in which to speak on the phone with a worker to complete the process.

Social service agencies and welfare services are dependent on state and local tax revenue, and though the amount of funding varies from city to city, county to county, and state to state, most are barely able to absorb the needs of the less fortunate in good economic times. In bad economic times, budgets are stretched to the gills, the deficiency in number of workers needed is much more visibly pronounced, and as a result the system quickly grinds to a halt or at least a slow trickle. In situations like these, with three and four times as many applicants in the pipeline, it takes even longer to obtain even the minimum and it may mean that three and four times as much effort and persistence is needed until one finally receives a place on the rolls. When budgets are tight, it also means is that coverage for any service can be terminated at any time, for any reason, based on some mysterious internal audit or the flimsiest of justifications, all implemented based on the compulsion to save money and keep from depleting the General Fund.

Speaking to my own recent experience, just to obtain a referral to a clinic that treats basic physical ailments the way any GP would took two frustrating days on the phone, whereby I called at least seven different numbers and spoke to close to ten people. Eventually I finally, quite by chance, stumbled across the right person who finally got everything in order. I was told at the time that the reason for the vast amount of confusion was, in part, a result of the fact that low salaries at certain centers designed to direct patient inquiries meant that there was always quite a bit of turnover. Since the system itself was complex, it often took a while before any worker properly understood it enough to convey accurate information to anyone. Though I am thankful for my success, I couldn't help but think about all the others who found themselves with blood pressure raised high enough for long enough to set aside any subsequent efforts to see a doctor. It is no wonder that the rates of easily preventable conditions are high among the working poor, since if it takes this degree of effort, I know many will go without rather than undergo what at first seems like a fruitless search.

This leads me to my next point, at which I discuss another barrier to obtaining needed services---senseless complications and poor networking between agencies. Many times these are products of all the barriers I have stated above, but what this also reflects is our compulsion to micromanage the affairs of the poor. Not only that, we wish to control their lives because many of us believe that they are clearly up to no good and only a step above either common criminals or lazy ne'er do wells with nothing so much as ambition or drive. I wouldn't exactly call this tough love so much as I would call it punitive retribution. One needs only look at the ACORN matter to see evidence of that. Conservatives saw exactly what they've always wished to see in that case, confirming their own darkest suspicions in the process. I honestly believe if it were up to them, many would do away with all taxpayer funded programs designed to assist the less fortunate among us, unsympathetically remarking like Herbert Hoover that these services ought to be the domain of churches and faith-based organizations, but certainly not of government.

Where one sees frustrating evidence that the right hand doesn't know quite what the left hand is doing in any circumstance, or that everyone's not quite on the same page, it is tempting to deem it indisputable proof that larger government is both a waste and a headache. This is what drove the Tea Party protesters to spout off and also motivated those who feared and still fear the enactment of some nebulously defined, super scary government-controlled health care plan, but I counter that assumption by noting that with an adequate amount of funding, an adequate amount of staffing, a moderate amount of reform, and a network of customers of ample economic means, the system would run far more efficiently. Most people who are used to medicine on demand would simply not stand for the degree of complication and delay as currently exists, and money has a way of smoothing out many of the kinks in any system. Not all of them, of course, but many. Money has a way of giving people a reason to stay in a job for more than a short time and encouraging competent management that would attend to the needs of a much more educated, much more affluent demographic that would expect more and not a group of citizens who have unfortunately long come to expect that the few concessions thrown them will be of inferior quality.

Returning to the system the way it is today, the elephant in the room, naturally, is a very pronounced element of racist and classist assumption. Since discrepancies between wage earnings are still very pronounced between Whites and Blacks, most who qualify for and use safety net programs are poverty-line African-Americans, and more recently a rapidly growing number of Latinos. Most, but not all, of course. In my experience, I was the only White person applying for food stamps and the only Caucasian seeking treatment and prescription drug coverage. As we well know, nothing instigates GOP ire faster than the notion of welfare cheats or avoidable drains on Good Honest American Taxpaying Citizens™, as seen above with Mr. Bauer. I'm not quite sure what I find more offensive about his remarks, the dehumanizing element reducing poor Americans to feral animals, the element of eugenics which suggests that poverty could be reduced or eliminated by means of forced sterilization or starvation, or the implication that all those in need are simple-minded strays who aren't concerned with anything much more than just reproducing and creating burdens for humans who have to take the time and effort to keep their numbers in check. I've heard some fairly creative theories for population control and elimination of inferior races, but yours, Mr. Bauer, is not one of them.

The real enemy here is not conservatism, or liberalism, or an entitlement mentality, or even an underclass. The issue is equality, pure and simple, or should I say the lack thereof. I will be honest here. I was raised by a Father who placed complete faith in Ronald Reagan and his view of the waste and graft of welfare and with it a simultaneously dismal opinion of the efficiency of any government program, regardless of its stated purpose or function. Indeed, there was a time where I myself held similar beliefs. But though I had changed by tune well before then, my eyes were truly opened when it came my time to use these same basic lifelines granted anyone who qualifies. I recognized quickly that had I not been born into a middle class, highly educated family, I might not have been able to chart my way through a very convoluted system and obtain the services I needed along the way. Working the system requires a good bit of guesswork and tremendous amount of trying to successfully solve a problem with multiple unknown variables.

The system is not designed for the undereducated and the impoverished, rather it is a construct of those whose job description clearly must include a love of complicated solutions for simple problems and an insistence upon a variety of completely unrealistic constants, like minimal turn over among workers on the front lines and at the field office. Again, equality in pay would do much to keep that in check, as would a system that was put together with greater skill and dexterity. I'm not arguing that throwing money at a problem is any adequate means to fix it, but what I am saying is that if each of the individual pieces of the system were designed with the ability to be revised easily and as the situation demanded, and if those who worked this system took a job as a career, not just a vocation, then many of these problems could be eliminated.

If these social service agencies and welfare programs were run like a business in the private sector, they would have gone bankrupt years ago, but the fault here is once again that we honestly must not really have much regard for human life, particularly for those "not like us" for whatever reason. Oh sure, we'll give money to Haiti and vow to offer our services in any way that we can. I don't mean to come across as cynical regarding anyone's motivation to assist the victims of that battered island nation. The outpouring of help would soften the heart of even the most bitter person, but many will see Haiti as a one-time, special occasion. I live in the District of Columbia and in a relatively small area based on surface area both the richest of the rich of the poor living side by side. The ostentatious wealth of Georgetown is countered by the desolation of Anacostia and recently gentrified areas like Columbia Heights or right near by the Capitol paint an even starker view of the discrepancy. As I've seen the money rolling in to be sent to Haiti, I can't help but wonder what even a fraction of that outpouring could do for the District's poor, and especially for those infected with HIV/AIDS since the District itself has an obscenely high number of cases that put it on par with an African nation, not a region within the borders of the United States.

Any system designed to assist those without our fundamental advantages depends upon the cooperation of those farther up the totem pole, and if our checkbooks, if not our hearts are closed to them, then the system will always be insufficient and dysfunctional, poverty will always exist, disparities will always exist between race and class, and so too will the desperate attitudes that lead to drug addiction and crime. The life we save might be our own someday. So yes, in this instance we do it to ourselves, and that's what really hurts the most. And we do it by not recognizing that it is within our power to treat the cause of the problem, much like medicine would in counteracting a disease. For example, one can treat strep throat with an aspirin, but that only takes into account the effect. Treating the cause often requires a shot of penicillin, and once it has made its way through the blood stream, healing begins and pain ends. Aspirin might be far cheaper than a cost of a doctor's visit without insurance, but it will merely mask or temporarily delay the pain of the sore throat. With time, it wear off, the pain returns, and the need to take more returns. The disease itself remains and will remain until it is properly treated.

If conservatives are so indebted to scripture and to their assertion that we ought to be a Christian nation, I wish they'd keep these passages below in mind.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the people who have God's approval will reply to him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!'

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