I get semi-regular commentaries from Cousin Bill in Vermont. He’s written some interesting tomes, but spent most of his life doing business and trying to reconcile to American business model with care and responsibility. I never knew I had a cousin until I met him at Uncle Mark’s during a visit at Christmas, 1997. I actually got to visit the farmstead in Vermont in April of 1998 and we have sent the odd e-mail back and forth over the years, but I look forward to his commentaries, some about local Vermont issues, some with broader application. Here is the latest:
The Social Safety Net We Can Never Afford
We’re putting our future at risk. The current political stasis that ignores the needs of so many Americans and immigrants and refuses to fix broken systems is creating a new wave of troubled citizens who will only cost more to help in the future. If we think the safety net is expensive now…do nothing and see what awaits us in another decade.
About fifty million Americans live below the poverty line. Many of those are “working poor” and comprise the fastest-growing economic class in our country. Now consider that simply being poor can make you sick. Lack of safe housing, poor diet, high stress, lack of access to health care, substandard education and a greater risk of being a victim of crime, injury, environmental hazards or discrimination all affect health. Poverty breeds emergency room patients and other societal costs.
Many neighborhoods are more like apartheid enclaves than democratic communities. Gated communities, united by shared economic status, flourish far from low-income housing projects. Switzerland integrates low, middle, and high-income housing projects into single neighborhoods. Our egalitarian traditions would indicate a similar policy but our belief in wealth as privilege obstructs this.
Schools in poor neighborhoods struggle to make up for stress and unmet needs at home. Under-educated children may make poor choices and struggle to find meaningful work that might offer them a leg up to financial independence on the economic ladder.
While the rest of the civilized world has made access to health care a basic right of citizenship, our citizens must compete financially for access to the quality healthcare we brag about. The prognosis for those without access only gets worse and more expensive.
Then there’s incarceration. With almost 2.5 million Americans in jail, 100,000 of whom are kids, we’ve enrolled almost 1 % of our citizens in crime academies where they learn little more than how to become better criminals. We do little or nothing to reintegrate them into society.
We are quick-to-war, even though the last morally unequivocal war ended in 1945. Thousands of our young people enlist with the largely illusory dream of patriotism, respect, and expensive toys. Many return home unnoticed except by family, often physically or emotionally crippled, and some sexually abused or addicted to drugs or to the adrenaline of conflict.
Our obsession with gun rights has flooded our nation with weapons. Killing someone in a fit of pique is now as easy as checking your watch. The ubiquity of guns turns spontaneous rage into murder, most often among our children.
While politicians debate the red herrings of ideology, we’re creating a new wave of citizens who will need a social safety net we can never afford to build.
We know that prevention is more cost-efficient than cure yet we like to live in the moment. Thinking ahead is hard and requires some current sacrifice. But the mentality of “I’ve got mine. You go get yours, and don’t ask me to share” will surely bankrupt us in the future.