What Everyone Deserves

What everyone deserves forms a rather short list that the non-poor take for granted: 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, which to the rich seem paltry and minimal. However, I maintain that those who attain them 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 seven things are just as happy as the wealthy, and great wealth is no guarantee of happiness.

It is difficult to get that more important form of wealth these days, and its value is often given short shrift in order to pursue money exclusively. Indeed, in our country, it is always more important to have lots of money. When Americans speak of “success”, they mean money, exclusively. Most of us harbor the same belief, and eagerly seek out things like big-screen TVs and late model cars, sometimes ignoring the lack of books and healthy food in the house.

No one deserves to be rich. The possibility of becoming wealthy is a sign of opportunity in a healthy society, but certainly not the only one. Great wealth means only that one knows how to accumulate great wealth.

Likewise, no one deserves poverty. Poverty refers not just to income, but 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 always 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.

Even when the poor have full time employment, it is often paid at levels that keep them poor. For this reason, I am strongly in favor of laws promoting a living wage for all work. Something like Australia. Any honest, full time work should pay enough that workers and their families do not fall into poverty because of it. No one who works full time should be poor. Unfortunately, an increasing part of the population is falling behind in well-being because even with two or more full-time jobs in the family, income may be inadequate because ordinary work is so poorly rewarded.

We fail as a society to recognize the real value of work of all types. 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 be in a position to summon help for a patient in trouble, thus saving her life.

Some people are not able to work, for various reasons, such as disease, permanent injury, developmental disorder, etc. If we are to be a just society, we owe such people sufficient support to minimize their suffering. There are few among us who will not need such help at some point during their lives. We do not owe such people a car, a TV, or any other retail item. We owe them seven basic things—health care, safety, habitat, and so on—and only to the point where they become capable of providing these things for themselves.

There is, and has always been, a common belief that the poor deserve their poverty because of laziness and various other innate negative character traits. This belief is as common today, with the currently favored Latino scapegoats, as it was during the Irish immigration surge. Perhaps we believe this because the scope of our vision is limited. We saw the surge of poor Italians, living in slums rife with crime, and thought it was the nature of Italians. 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. This was true for Irish, Turks, Germans, and Italians, among other Europeans. Africans were largely ignored in 19th century discussions of race, but soon after emancipation began to be perceived the same way successive waves of European immigrants were seen. Perhaps because they are more easily distinguished from others, they still find many obstacles even a century and a half after release from slavery’s horrors.

I am not at all certain that the social conditions that have created the evils that have poisoned so many American cultural groups can be purposely rectified. What can be rectified are legal conditions that restrict one group or another, and there have been many such laws. We would like to believe that tolerance can be purposely cultivated, but there seem to be an endless supply of fools who would rather look for someone to hate.

Thoughtful comments for or against these posts are always appreciated.

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