Today is Humira Day – the one day of each month when I have to sit home and wait for the delivery of my Humira Pen refills. I have to sign for them, because they cost about $2,000, and you don’t want to leave anything that expensive at the door in my building. The neighbors are mostly great folks, but security is….lax? No, that’s too kind…non-existent is more like it. Recently the mail carrier asked me if I had seen a package she had left at the door across the hall from me; it had disappeared right under the security camera’s nose. Apparently no one is watching. Which brings me to the contradiction that is the topic of this post:
Myth #1: The poor in America are well-cared for by their communities through social programs like Food Stamps and Social Security and Medicaid (disclosure: the author receives all three).
Until the 1990’s, when I dropped out of the middle class (not purposely, of course) I, like most Americans, believed this to be true. I was taught in public schools that the US has established an official ‘poverty line.’ My classmates and I were led to believe that any American whose income fell below that line would be brought up to that ‘minimum standard’ American lifestyle. We learned about President Johnson’s 1960’s era “War on Poverty” and the programs it created. These programs, we were told, were still available, and almost eliminated real poverty in America decades ago. Between 1961 and 1969, the poverty rate in America did decline from about 22% to about 12%:
“The poverty rate dropped from 22.2 percent in 1960 to 12.1 percent in 1969. See U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, INCOME, POVERTY,
AND HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE IN THE UNITED STATES: 2004, at 46 (2005), http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p60-229.pdf; see
also Rebecca M. Blank & Alan S. Blinder, Macroeconomics, Income Distribution, and Poverty, in FIGHTING POVERTY: WHAT
WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T 180 (Sheldon H. Danzinger & Daniel H. Weinberg eds., 1986) (“During the 1960s the percentage
of people living below the poverty line fell rapidly and continuously—from about 22 percent in 1961 to about 12
percent in 1969. Poverty declined particularly rapidly during the boom years of 1965, 1966, and 1968 (which, of course,
were also the years in which the Great Society programs were getting started) ….”)”.
Poverty began to increase again, however, in 1996 with the new ‘Workfare’ policies that – at the time – even I was sure were a great idea. Then I dropped out of college when I maxed out my student loan eligibility and my father cut me off (financially and otherwise). Suddenly I was unemployed and homeless, and the truth about poverty in America (and particularly the new Clinton/Gingrich-era policies) began to come into sharp focus:
“Poverty is up by five million people since
President Clinton left office.(1) Extreme
poverty—the number who lives on incomes
below half the poverty line—is up by three
million.(2) Yet the welfare rolls have continued
to decline.(3) What is wrong with
that picture, especially when food stamp
rolls have risen by eight and one-half million
since the second President Bush took
office?(4) Anyone meeting the eligibility
criteria has a legal entitlement to food
stamps; there is no longer any federally
enumerated legal right for families with
children to receive cash assistance under
the program that is familiarly known as
“welfare.”(5) The inference I draw is that
what is going on is some combination of
turning applicants away at the welfare
office, careful shepherding of the five-year
lifetime eligibility for assistance (which is
of shorter duration in many states), and
some number of people who have already
exhausted their lifetime limit.”
(1)According to the U.S. Census, the number of people living in poverty rose from 31.6 million in 2000 to 37 million in
2004. See U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, supra note 39, at 46.
(2)The number of people in the United States with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty threshold rose from 12.6
million in 2000 to 15.6 million in 2004. See Table 22: Number and Percent of People Below 50 Percent of Poverty Level:
1975 to 2004, http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/histpov/hstpov22.html (last visited Feb. 3, 2006).
(3)As of July 2000, there were 2,189,951 families and 5,752,559 individuals on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
caseloads. See Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Total Number of Families and Recipients: July–September 2000,
http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/news/stats/welfare.htm (last visited Feb. 3, 2006). By June 2004 the number of families and individuals on
TANF caseloads had fallen to 1,969,909 and 4,729,291, respectively. See Press Release, U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Welfare Rolls Continue to Fall (Feb. 9, 2005), http://www.acf.hhs.gov/news/press/2005/TANFdeclineJune04.htm.
(4)From 2000 to 2005, the average number of food stamp recipients climbed from 17.2 million to 25.7 million. See Food
Stamp Program Participation and Costs, http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/fssummar.htm (last visited Feb. 3, 2006).
(5)7 U.S.C. § 2014 (2000 & Supp. II 2002); 42 U.S.C. § 601(b) (2000).
58See David A. Super, Offering an Invisible Hand: The Rise of the Personal Choice Model for Rationing Public Benefits,
113 YALE LAW JOURNAL 815 (2004).
(All quotes and notes are from: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/povertyandinequality/documents/TheWaronPovertyandSubsequentPrograms.pdf
Americans aren’t miserly or cruel in general, but many government programs intended to reduce poverty are both. My disability began in January of 2004, but I was denied SSI and Medicaid even after my record of hospitalizations had grown to hundreds of pages. I was homeless almost the entire time, jumping from halfway house to shelter to 7-11 parking lot. I was approved to receive Food Stamps, but otherwise there are no federal programs that help people in that situation except SSI and Medicaid. In 2010, on appeal to an Administrative Law Review Judge, I was approved to receive SSI and Medicaid.
Which brings me back to today being Humira Day. I have Crohn’s Disease, and the newest treatments cost thousands of dollars. Medicaid refused my doctor’s prescriptions on several occasions, and if I did not have the most compassionate gastroenterologist in the known Universe I would not be receiving the quality of treatment that I do receive. He showed me the back-and-forth faxing he had to personally do with the friendly folks at Freedom First, one of the HMO’s that handles Medicaid patients in Florida. Until I called Dr. Hari Singh’s office I could not find a gastroenterologist in my county that accepted adult Medicaid patients at all.
I found a studio apartment in August of 2010. I split it with an under-employed friend who came to Florida in January of 2010 to escape another homeless winter in Duluth, Minnesota – where shelters routinely turn people away even in dangerously cold weather. My SSI check covers the $625/month rent and currently leaves me with $49 to pay the $100/month electric bill, so I couldn’t keep a roof over my head without a roommate (he pays his half slowly, over the course of the month, by working labor pools). I also receive Food Stamps, so that makes my total annual income $10,488 ($2400 of that in Food Stamps; SSI alone is $8,088/year). If you add subsidies for phone service ($13.50/month) and electric service ($510.93 last year, all told) it adds up to $11,660/year. The 2011 Poverty Guidelines of the Department of Health and Human Services draw the poverty line for a single individual living in one of the 48 contiguous US states at $10,890/year. My point is that it is a myth that the poor in America are guaranteed a decent, American-style standard of living. Technically I took in $770 in subsidies (not including health care) more than the level at which one is counted as officially poor in America. It took six years of sometimes extreme deprivation (and a saint-like Legal-Aid lawyer named Sandra Parker) to get me the meager subsidies I have just delineated. How many ill people die every year because they are denied benefits supposedly mandated by law? What about those who don’t have roommates to help them hang on by ‘the skin of their teeth?’ In the richest country in history…really? The American Way includes a generosity of purse and of spirit unseen in other cultures: we take care of our own, right? Street people are living that way by choice, right? More on that next time…
- Karen K. Harris: Welfare: Why Don’t They Get It? (huffingtonpost.com)
- The social safety net is broken (blogs.reuters.com)