What We Gotta Have

What everyone deserves forms a rather short list: decent shelter, reasonable safety, adequate clothing, adequately paid work, healthy food, basic health care, and decent education. These are the foundation of civilized life, and everyone deserves those things. If you are affluent, these things seem paltry and minimal. Where are the 52-inch plasma screens, the German cars, the $200 meals?

I maintain that those who attain these seven things have gained genuine wealth, whereas wealth measured exclusively in dollars is far less important. The truth of this is attested by studies of happiness: those who have these things are just as happy as the wealthy, and wealth is no guarantee of happiness. Unfortunately, when you ask about a person’s success in America, you are asking how much money he or she has. A person may have written critically recognized poetry or put a struggling student on the right path, but if she isn’t rich, she isn’t successful.

I know for a fact that there are many people who blame the poor for their own poverty. This is not only cruel, but demonstrably false. The cause of poverty is being born into poverty, or sometimes people fall into it by bad luck. It is easier to change this attitude than it is to get out of poverty, but that doesn’t happen much.

This belief, that the poor deserve their poverty because of laziness and various other innate negative character traits, is as true today with the currently favored Latino scapegoats, as it was during the Irish immigration surge of the 1800s. Perhaps we believe this because the scope of our vision is limited. We saw the surge of poor, living in slums rife with crime, and thought it was their nature. We didn’t live long enough to see these conditions fade to nothing. In the 19th century, successive waves of immigrant groups were excoriated because of the same perceived faults. All were in their turn considered stupid, lazy, dirty, dishonest, etc. All that turned out to be wrong.

In the US there is more than a little racism that comes with this attitude about the poor today. The reason is that the most visible poor people today are people of color, and they tend to live in partly self-segregated neighborhoods.

Below a certain level of income it becomes very difficult to live a life rich in the elements of life that are not monetary. The poor, for example, are less healthy. They are forced by circumstance to live in unhealthy, more isolated, and often more dangerous surroundings. Healthy food is more difficult to obtain there. Transportation is often poor, making satisfying work difficult, and adequate health care may be unavailable. This may even be true when pure income is otherwise adequate.

I am strongly in favor of laws promoting a living wage for all work. Something like Australia, which has had living wage laws for a century. Any honest, full time work should pay enough that workers and their families do not fall into poverty because of it. Unfortunately, an increasing part of the population is today falling into poverty because ordinary work is so poorly rewarded.

Work of all types has social value. The hospital is the best place to see the truth of this statement. Every hospital job carries the possibility of saving a life, and poor performance can cost a life. Those who change the beds and remove the trash help to eliminate potential life-threatening sources of infection. Those in administration manage information that, properly recorded, can eliminate conflicts arising from misunderstanding of the patient’s needs, which directly affects their health outcome. Literally every worker may well affect the outcome of a hospital stay. The value of other kinds of work is usually less dramatic, but it’s all important.

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