“The poorest people in our country today, on the whole, are
working every day. But they are earning wages so low that
they cannot begin to function in the mainstream… We have
thousands and thousands of people working on full-time
jobs, with part-time incomes.”
-The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was asked to see her while she was hospitalized for a flare of her autoimmune disease. She had been brought to the Emergency Room with seizures, a high fever, a rash that covered all of her body, and numerous swollen joints. She was a patient at a local arthritis clinic. Medicaid paid for her visits to the specialist and for most of her medicine. The clinic was run by one of the medical schools. Her doctors were young people still in training. Once they graduated a new batch of doctors took their place. They were not easily accessible after hours, and they rarely took the time to find out anything about the personal life of the patients they saw.
She was 27. One of several children whose mother did not have much time to educate. She became ill as a junior in high school. Until that time she had done well; some of her teachers had encouraged her to apply for college. Her disease put an end to her hopes. She was not able to get her high school diploma. She did odd jobs when she felt well enough to work. A pregnancy followed, which almost killed her and her child. She worked at a fast food place, again when she could; the months that her disease was controlled she put in 60 hours a week.
But she could never get ahead. The boss would not promote someone who could not be relied on to show up every day. When the state legislature ran out of money (because they cut taxes for the wealthy) her medical benefits were cut. The more money she made, the more the state expected her to contribute to pay for her medicine and blood tests. Her car broke down; she had to take a ninety minute bus ride one way to work. Responsible child care was hard to find. If her child got sick that meant losing a day’s wages.
She gave up. She stopped going to her doctor visits. She took her pills every other day. She hoped, against what she knew was inevitable, that she would remain in remission. She made her disease invisible, the same way that society had marginalized her and encouraged her to remain in the sidelines, unseen; ignored; an ugly sore that we did not want to admit existed.
The news was not good. Her kidneys were not working. She remained unconscious for three days. She developed pneumonia. Every day I would look for a relative that I could communicate with. No luck; there was a sister who took care of her child, but she had her own set of problems trying to make a living and she was hard to find.
When she was alert enough to talk I learned more about her. She had made an attempt to go back to school. She was able to pass her GED. There was a little bit of grant money for her to begin a health career. She worked fifty hours a week at minimum wage; she went to school another twelve; she could barely lift her head out of bed in the morning. There was no money to buy medicine, and no time to go to the clinic, nor did she have a way to get there. She clearly saw that she needed a degree, but something had to give. Her body did.
The hospital did everything it could. Many specialists were called in. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent treating a condition that could have remained under control had she been able to make an extra $300 a month. After six weeks of a never ending string of complications she died. I don’t know what happened to her child.
Minimum wage. A popular subject on any day. When President Obama wanted to mandate a sharp rise from the current level, the opposition maintained that jobs would be lost, and businesses would suffer. They added that most minimum-wage jobs were held by part-timers. That businesses would hire less workers if they were forced to pay more.
One of my friends, a very intelligent and accomplished professional, is dead set against an increase. He is a good man, and he worships his family. I asked him why he is opposed to what seems to me to be a matter of elementary fairness.
“I worked for the minimum wage as a teenager. This is where I found out that I needed to go to school so that I could make more.”
You did not work for minimum wage. I understand what you say. But you did not work for minimum wage.
“Of course I did.”
I believe that in those days, you worked for $4 an hour. But did you pay for your rent? Of course not. Did you have to ride the bus for 90 minutes to get to your place of work? God forbid that your parents would have allowed that! Were you working in an unsafe neighborhood, in a hazardous place of business? Not the white child from West County, not even a chance.
Allow me to continue. Your meals were free. You had two parents who loved you, nurtured you, and tucked you into a warm bed every night. You knew, with 100% degree of certainty, that had your job fallen through, you would still have a home, and a bed, and three hot meals a day. All of these comforts cost money. Your employer may have paid you $4 an hour; you were living as if you were making five, ten times that much.
I am not trying to put you down. I grew up with the same benefits you did. We were born on third base. After we were born our parents gently guided us down the path from third to home plate; they made sure that we scored a run. Yes, we expended a lot of effort. We studied hard; we work even harder. But this does not hide the fact: we were born on third base. We did not hit a triple.
Let me tell you what it is like to be born at home plate. You are one of five kids. Your father is nowhere to be seen. Your mom works 70 minimum-wage hours a week in order to pay the rent and buy food. You never had a pediatrician; if you got your immunizations you were lucky. No one ever read to you; there were no books in the house. You heard gunshots outside your home at least three days a week. You were cold in winter, and six months later you were unable to sleep due to the stifling heat.
Once you got to first base they took you to school. Your teacher barely knew your name; there were too many kids in the class. There were few books and fewer teaching materials. And the worst part: everyone expects you to fail. It’s the norm. If you do well the other kids beat up on you, and the teacher does not have the time to give you special attention.
Deal with all of this. Make it to second base. Bullying from the older kids. Your mom gets sick; now you have to go to work to help out. There is no way that you will be able to earn the grades and the test scores it takes to receive a college scholarship. When your grades drop no one seems to be upset. You are supposed to be poor and stupid. You begin to wonder if there is some truth to this. If you are a woman, you are constantly harassed and vilified by the neighborhood men. You do not feel safe. All of your friends have had a baby; they want you to join them.
For us to say that we made it, that everyone should make it as we did is to demonstrate an abysmal lack of knowledge of what life is like for poor people. If we could only send our kids to live in these households for a week; if they were forced to wait for a bus at 11PM in the middle of an unsafe neighborhood, maybe we would begin to understand what it’s like to make it to first base.
We have the chance to make a huge difference in the life of hundreds of thousands of people, at a minimal cost to us.
What holds us back?