Suddenly, millions of Americans are realizing how hard it is to get help in an emergency and how our safety net is full of holes. The truth is it has always been hard to get substantive assistance when life hands you lemons. People struck with a disability, unemployment, mental illness, relocation or simply old age, have reported for decades that getting any form of assistance in this country means swallowing a big dose of indifference, shame and injustice.
My clients in New Orleans in the late 1960s introduced me to the reality that people who work in programs set up to help people often saw it as their duty to judge and punish when making decisions about a client’s worthiness to receive help. Things like letting a phone ring unanswered, placing the Aged and Disabled intake office in a location without public transportation and up a flight of stairs, having no translators, rescheduling appointments in order to delay benefits, were all acknowledged ways of reducing caseloads and punishing clients they didn’t like.
Throughout the 243 years of America’s existence, we have not been able to shake the belief that people cause their own problems, that good people do not have bad things happen to them, and that people do not deserve to get something for nothing. Many believe that even a small amount of help should have strings attached and doing something for someone requires something in return.
In these past weeks, many first timers have come face to face with a bureaucratic morass. The assistance they have always assumed “other people” were getting really does not exist or is greatly limited. Real help is slow in coming, short in duration and always comes with strings attached. No wonder people want to go back to work. It is not pleasant living with insecurity, asking for help and feeling powerless. It is one thing to be against government handouts for other people, but we don’t feel that should include my aunt, your husband, my cousin or ourselves. These past weeks of unanswered messages, interminable waits on the telephone, crashed websites and the check is in the mail may be the first realization for some people that Americans believe it is unacceptable to be unemployed, to be disabled, to have special needs or to be financially desperate so we greatly limit their options. No one cares if assistance programs are slow, out of date, mismanaged, underfunded or undermanned because there is something wrong with those people who need those benefits anyway.
The Democratic Party has tried in many ways over many years to address and override this culture of shame. We believe, and these are my words, that people fall on hard times mostly due to accidents of birth, unavoidable economic changes, disasters of all sizes and the great unfairness of life itself. We really believe in the phrase “through no fault of their own”. We believe no one person is better or more worthy than another and each person has his life to live and society should provide ways to nourish that life. We believe that public education for all is not just important but of paramount importance to the economic and social health of a nation. We have championed unions, civil rights, fair and equal pay, reasonable immigration procedures, public education, healthcare for all and world peace. We have proposed and passed hundreds of laws, statutes and programs to improve the quality of life and the dignity of those who were born with challenges or who fell upon hard times. We will not stop trying to eradicate the attitude that some people are worth more than others. That some people contribute more than others. And that some contributions are more worthy than others. We Democrats are diverse, opinionated, emotional, and often impractical.
We consider ourselves optimists, and we do not seem to mind learning from adversity. Our successes have been at times astronomical and our failures more than dismal. Rolling with the punches is one of our mottoes and we do not believe this pandemic will keep America down if we get behind leaders who are smart, hardworking and swift. Now that many millions of Americans have walked in the shoes of the unemployed, uninsured and food insecure, maybe we can see our way to fixing programs that do not work as they should. There is a chance that we will realize that we do not get through catastrophes like this by blaming one group of people or by allowing one group to die while others thrive. I still believe a fair and just world is achievable, but we need new leadership. We need empathy and compassion restored to our way of life.
The place to start is registering to vote and turning out the vote in November.