I was all set to talk about how both parties’ conventions were found wanting when speaking of the issues that directly impact the poor; ready to take the Republicans and Democrats to task for this egregious negligence, and then … a funny thing happened on the way to the keyboard. At the DNC convention, several […]
I was all set to talk about how both parties’ conventions were found wanting when speaking of the issues that directly impact the poor; ready to take the Republicans and Democrats to task for this egregious negligence, and then … a funny thing happened on the way to the keyboard.
At the DNC convention, several individuals, including former president Bill Clinton, highlighted some of the needs and concerns of the impoverished, and how effective or ineffective policy directly impacts their lives.
So, what is to be done now that they have spoken, well at least somewhat, about it? We speak about it even more. The limited attention that was paid to the plight of the poor during Wednesday night’s festivities is only a signpost in the discussion and not the destination. There is still a silence about some of the deeper, more abiding, and dare I say, unpleasant, issues concerning those in need and the poor.
A Dickensesque reality
We still haven’t heard a great deal about the re-introduction of a sort of debtors’ prisons into this nation’s justice system. This is no longer a reality that can only be found in the works of Dickens and Hugo, but it is here with us now affecting the lives of many Americans.
Although the U.S. put an end to debtors’ prisons in the 1830s, more than a third of U.S. states allow the police to arrest people who don’t pay their debts: from bills for health care services to credit card and auto loans.
A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union shined a light on five states, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington and found that people were being jailed at “increasingly alarming rates” over legal debts. Cases ranged from a woman who was arrested four separate times for failing to pay $251 in fines and court costs related to a fourth-degree misdemeanor conviction, to a mentally ill juvenile jailed by a judge over a previous conviction for stealing school supplies.
Particularly salient, is the story of Lisa Lindsay (a teacher’s assistant) who survived breast cancer only to find herself a victim of this collusion between creditors and the courts. She was jailed for a $280 medical bill —- a bill she received in error. That error led to her being arrested by state troopers and led to jail in handcuffs.
This has been stated before, by this writer, but it bears repeating: There is not one Wall Street executive or CEO of a big bank who has been charged or arrested for the biggest theft and evisceration of wealth in history, and yet individuals who owe less than $300 are imprisoned. You don’t have to look very hard to see the injustice in that.
Fourteen of the fifteen states [involved in the “debtors’” prison system] also utilize “poverty penalties” – piling on additional late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals are unable to pay their debts all at once, often enriching private debt collectors in the process. Some of the collection fees are exorbitant and exceed ordinary standards of fairness. For example, Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, while Florida permits private debt collectors to tack on a 40 percent surcharge to underlying debt.
Realize this: Some of those who are being targeted are service members just returning from deployment and seniors who are living from Social Security check to Social Security check. This practice places an onerous burden on those who are already feeling the weight of impoverishment and debt and saddles them with a criminal record as well — making it even more difficult to break the cycle of poverty.
Homelessness is a crime
Another issue related to poverty, which gets very little attention, is homelessness. In many cities across the country, officials are passing measures that, in effect, criminalize being homeless. Recently in Philadelphia, the outdoor feeding of people in city parks has been banned.
A National Coalition for the Homeless report titled, Homes not Handcuffs: A Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities states that even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.
Such measures often prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violation of these laws. Some cities have even enacted food sharing restrictions that punish groups and individuals for serving homeless people. Many of these measures appear to have the purpose of moving homeless people out of sight, or even out of a given city.
Now, advocates of such measures say that it’s more dignified to the homeless individual to receive help and services indoors than to be fed in a park or on the street and that there must be a balance between addressing the needs of the homeless populace and the call for orderly governance by the public at-large.
Yes, these arguments may have some merit, but there are a couple of things that are not taken into account. First, in many cities there is a lack of emergency food services and shelters.
Secondly, while cities are citing people who violate such ordinances, they ultimately lose money when officials try to follow up on such cases. This, in turn, hurts people’s ability to get jobs and housing because many develop criminal records as a result.
These laws are being enacted by Democratic and Republican officials alike. There is no partisan divide in regard to this treatment of the homeless —- both parties have been hostile.
To dramatize this hard and painful reality in our society, over the course of a year, the odds of experiencing homelessness for a person in the general U.S. population are 1 in 194; for a person discharged from prison or jail, the odds are 1 in 13.
Additionally, for a person living doubled-up (living with friends, family or other non-relatives for economic reasons), the odds are 1 in 12, and for a person who has aged out of foster care, the odds are 1 in 11.
There is this out of sight, out of mind dynamic that diminishes action and empathy in regard to homelessness, however — 69 percent of the homeless populations is located in 100 of the most populous metropolitan cities.
Among those who are “out of sight” are the approximately 67,000 veterans who are homeless on any given night. Another 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
And yet, given this dire need in our nation, what have we heard from either party? Was ending homelessness, as we know it, a part of the Democrats’ platform or the Republicans’?
Sick and tired of being sick and tired
Peripherally, at the DNC convention, the costs and debt incurred as a result of medical bills and health care were touched on — even though Obamacare is being discussed a great deal. Nevertheless, there is a great deal more to be said about the subject … a great deal more.
A 2005 study by Harvard University researchers found that the average out-of-pocket medical debt for those who filed for bankruptcy was $12,000. The study noted that 68 percent of those who filed for bankruptcy had health insurance.
In addition, the study found that 50 percent of all bankruptcy filings were partly the result of medical expenses.
Every 30 seconds in the United States someone files for bankruptcy in the aftermath of a serious health problem.
Further, about 1.5 million families lose their homes to foreclosure every year due to unaffordable medical costs. Yes, because of the Affordable Care Act insurance companies no longer can deny your child coverage due to a pre-existing condition (effective in 2014 for adults) or charge women more than men. Yes, it has allowed 6.6 million young adults who have been able to stay on their parents’ plans until the age of 26.
This is what it doesn’t do, however. Although Obamacare expands coverage to about 30 million uninsured people (according to government figures), an estimated 26 million Americans will remain without coverage. And here’s a stubborn little fact that seems to get lost in the discussion as well: Most of those who go bankrupt as a result of medical and/or health care costs have health insurance.
Among those whose illnesses led to bankruptcy, out-of-pocket costs averaged $11,854 since the start of illness; 75.7 percent had insurance at the onset of illness. Let us recap: Even with the Affordable Health Care Act and increased access to health insurance, there is still the possibility of being uninsured; and even if one is insured, the opportunity that some medical catastrophe can bankrupt you is very real.
There have been powerful forces within our society that have been very effective in painting the poor and impoverished as lazy and shiftless free-loaders looking to get over on the system. With that image of the poor being so prevalent, is it any wonder why we can’t summon the political and moral will to truly address poverty?
The vast majority of those who are being referred to as deadbeats are simply dead-sick, dead-tired and dead-broke. And what of those who served our country in the armed forces? Why are their numbers so prodigious among those in poverty? Is it that after they do what is considered this country’s dirty work (dirty work performed by less than 1 percent of the American population), they elude this nation’s consciousness?
Major political party conventions can be great political theater; the speeches, the one-liners, the posing and posturing and the pageantry. What will the policies be, however, when the actors exit the stage and the lights go out?
Will the poor, the homeless and the sick continue to be casted as mere extras, while big banks, Wall Street and a wealthy, well-connected few play their “customary” leading roles?
Contrary, to popular belief, dear reader, you, not those you elect, are the directors in this saga called democracy. It’s up to you how this movie ends. So … rights, justice and action.