Monday, September 06, 2010

Reforming, Not Rescinding Social Security

On this Labor Day, the fullest definition of economic equality and fair wages is on my mind. While on the subject, I'd like to pursue a related issue that has lately been front and center. While we continue to debate the role of marriage and what it means to us today, I thought I'd contribute a different strain of discourse to the already deeply rutted road. Most prevailing trains of thought opposing same-sex marriage tend to see it in only one of its many incarnations over the eons. Opponents of marriage equality take a rose-colored glasses interpretation of an earlier era that probably never really existed. Imagination can be deceptive. The sacred institution was only as sacred as each individual couple regarded it. These arguments presume that the impetus and motives of marriage were basically the same across the board and throughout the centuries.

In reality, marriage was the only way a woman could achieve needed economic stability. This set up a long-lasting cycle of dependency. We are often disinclined to look through the prism of class in formulating opinion, but in this situation, we must. Quite often, working class women of even a century ago married early, accepting the proposals of men who agreed to financially support them. That way, they'd at least be one less mouth to feed for parents and siblings who also had to work just to make ends meet. Even after exchanging vows, these women still had not much choice but to work outside the house.

Being a housewife was something of a status symbol then, one only granted to those with more than ample means. Women's wages still lagged far behind those of men. Marriage was then less about love than about necessity, and marriage for love was a right often only granted to the privileged. It is for this reason that I laugh when people talk about the need to preserve some kind of ancient institution in danger of extinction. Marriage has always been evolving and redefining itself. I began with marriage and now pivot to a different, but related topic.

To speak directly to an existing system that perpetuates dependency and compromises individual freedom, I'll focus on the plight of the disabled. One of the most distinct example of institutionalized ableism rests in how Social Security Disability is structured. A patchwork system that clumsily combines the authority of both individual states and Federal Government mandates, it symbolizes both the great promise and needless complications of a system of shared powers known as Federalism. As for those who depend on it, they have no choice but to scrape by on meager monthly payments. The amount of monthly income granted is insultingly low, placing a person well below the poverty level.

Opportunity is granted to those receiving benefits to make a modest amount of money in salary though supplementary employment, but it'd still be a stretch for anyone to make much more than 20K a year. Financial independence is almost assuredly impossible in this circumstance, and even with government-provided necessities like food stamps and health insurance, the disabled must nonetheless rely heavily on the good graces of family, significant others, and understanding friends.

The implication is that all disabilities are the same, which is certainly not the case. Most disabled citizens, I have found, wish to work and to contribute, but are severely limited by conditions that make full-time, conventional employment impossible. I write on this topic to speak directly to the Tea Party darlings now clamoring for an end to Social Security. They should think first before they speak, taking into consideration that there are complexities present that they have yet to take into account. One can, if one wishes, foam at the mouth about the lazy, unmotivated leeches of the underclass, but it's much more difficult to make a persuasive case in favor of removing a vital lifeline for the disabled. I doubt anyone would risk the ridicule and public outcry of advocating, in all seriousness, for eugenics and genetic engineering.

Most of my righteous indignation focuses squarely on a system which makes blanket assumptions. Some people are, tragically, so disabled that they must live with others who agree to supervise and watch over them. Many, however, desire the ability to stand on their own two feet, so to speak, and would rather not be an imposition, a money drain, or a time drain. In other countries, it would be considered insulting to provide so few resources to the genuinely needy. Some argue that the European welfare state goes too far, but I would respond by saying that, Europe aside, we don't go far enough.

Our highly individualistic culture insists that complete, usually financial independence is a sign of fully actualized adulthood. We infantilize and criticize, through our speech and our attitudes, those who we perceive who will not conform to this standard. So when we provide monetary assistance to disabled Americans that equals a fraction of the weekly salary of a fast-food worker, then it's easy to draw some conclusions.

The first is that disability ought to be for the short term, and that the financial squeeze provided by such an obscenely low payment ought to be motive enough for someone to go back into the workforce. Easy for them to say. The patient cursed with constant, chronic flare-ups of cancer requiring regular chemotherapy, the wheelchair-bound sufferer with MS, or the schizophrenic simply aren't going to be able to work again. These are the most obvious, extreme cases, but looks can often be deceiving.

Some illnesses are "invisible" up front or at least less obvious in the beginning. Frequent, debilitating migraine headaches, mental illness, and allergies to environmental toxins are but three chronic illnesses often not perceptible unless a person is having an acute episode. Many chronic disorders are exacerbated or brought on by a stressful environment, and some have no choice but to quit working in order to preserve their general health, and, in some cases, even their lives.

The second matter regards the matter of caretakers. Based on what has been noted above, it takes an understanding person to agree to be the permanent primary breadwinner, for starters. Money in savings or in existing salary is what is needed most. Those without either of them may not be able to manage. Finances aside, it also demands much inner strength to see a loved one struggle with an illness and be constantly frustrated with a world which doesn't make things easy for them. The definition of normality itself is what is in question here.

Oversights that create the most problems are usually sins of omission, rather than commission, but in lieu of assigning blame, opening our eyes and focusing our attention on those we usually pass over without a second glance is what it will take here. To return to how I began this post, many see marriage only in one particular form and apply it throughout the whole of history. These days, people don't see the complexities and unique challenges regarding our broken Social Security Disability system. I notably am not calling for its dissolution, but I am calling for us to re-think our base prejudices and default assumptions. Objections to the system are justified, but the form in which these protests are found is often not much more than naïve sloganeering.

To provide some historical perspective, before the New Deal, the prevailing logic was that those in need should be attended to by families, churches, civil organizations, and otherwise private enterprises. This, however, was complicated by the fact that all these efforts were hamstrung because of a bootstrap mythology still in place today, along with a stubborn belief in rugged individualism. It's well and good to pull oneself up in that way, except when one can't quite grasp the straps or can't afford to buy boots in the first place, to say nothing of laces.

A resurgent GOP concerns me for several reasons, but this obstinate refusal to comprehend the complexities of a massively intricate system bothers me the most. Government cannot wash its hands of those in need. No one doubts the dysfunction of the system, but better something than nothing. Contrary to what some assert, government doesn't always take some antagonistic position to our own. In fact, it resembles our concerns, prejudices, and fears more than we would ever like to believe.

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