I’m probably going to get into trouble over this post because it’s going to touch just a little bit on Public Health. It has to. It has to do this because I need to talk to you about social justice. How many readers did I just lose with that?
To some folks, social justice reeks of socialism, and we just can’t have that here in these here United States. I blame it on so much of the country being built on the concept of “rugged individualism“. You see it all the time in popular culture. Someone is faced with huge, overwhelming odds, and they manage to make a comeback on their own. The little guy always wins. Mr. So-And-So goes to Washington and gets rid of corruption.
He also figures out which weighs more, a pound of apportionment bills or a pound of pork.
We hear of great, wealthy men who made it on their own. At least that’s the image presented to us in popular culture. Can you name Donald Trump’s sidekick? (It’s cheating if you name his hair.) However, reality is not at all like this.
In the real world, we all need someone to help us, and we all need to help someone. That job that you think you scored all on your own, wearing a flu-themed tie to impress the epidemiologists? Well, it turns out that you didn’t earn that job all on your own. There were dozens of people behind you who raised you (e.g. your parents), taught you (e.g. your teachers), and inspired you in a special way (e.g. your heroes). If it wasn’t for them and their direct and indirect influence on you, you’d be nothing. We all would be nothing.
And, guess what? You’re still nothing!
To really believe that people who are poor, homeless, illiterate, criminals, etc., are all not worthy of your help because they need to learn to survive on their own is counterproductive. You don’t live in a bubble. Humans are not separated from each other by mountains and valleys any more. We live in families, towns, cities, countries, and a whole big planet where the actions of one person affect the actions of many others. If you choose not to help someone, you’re not helping yourself, either.
“Allow myself to introduce… Myself.”
People end up poor and on the streets not by their own will, I assure you. The actions of a few greedy “capitalists” are creating up to 1.5 million homeless people, many of them in families. (I put “capitalists” in quotes because their actions were not the actions of true capitalists. True capitalists don’t cheat. They let the supply meet the demand. They don’t create fake demand in order to affect supply.) But the concept of the homeless that we have in pop culture is what?
Must be an alcoholic, mentally disturbed, army vet, right?
The same goes with addicts. Honestly, tell me of someone who wants to pour their life savings into buying more and more drugs to get through the day. People who are addicted to drugs and alcohol (and food) did not get to that point in their life on their own. Someone had to tell them that this was acceptable, or did not tell them that it wasn’t. Someone had to sell them the drugs. I mean, tell me of someone who woke up one day and said, “I’m going to become addicted to smack today.”
But they’re delicious!
The public health part of this particular rant comes from the fact that public health in this country seems to be focused only on the things we can cure or very successfully treat. Even then, it focuses on ailments of the body, but very rarely does it focus on ailments of the mind, or ailments of the soul. Imagine if we attacked homelessness with the same sense of urgency that we went after swine flu in 2009.
There is no vaccine for many of our social ailments.
Ah, but swine flu was a non-discriminant kind of thing that could kill us all without any regard for our social status. Homelessness and addictions, on the other hand, are only conditions of “the undesirables”. Rich, powerful people don’t become addicted to drugs. They don’t completely ruin their lives like the rest of us do.
Yeah, okay, they do.
The difference is that some people have all the needed resources to get out of their mess. If a certain starlet gets into drugs and alcohol, a trip to a good rehab facility and a top-notch lawyer to bail her out in court are not really that expensive. On the other hand, if someone who lost their home to foreclosure because of the predatory practices of some unscrupulous lender ends up having an alcohol problem and loses their family as well… Well, that’s their problem and they should have known better, according to some members of the, shall we say, political “right”.
But the people who blame the victims of social ills for their own misfortune don’t seem to see the big picture. For every uninsured person that needs healthcare, the rest of us pay for their care. Should we stop that? Should we let them die as some suggested? How likely is it that a person without a place to stay, a place to shower and keep whatever they own, will also have a place to work?
“So what’s on the agenda for todays executive meeting, John?”
If the US Government was to really be hands-off with home loan lenders, can you imagine the kind of trickery that they would perform to screw people over? Actually, you can. They did it. And they did it because of deregulation that allowed lenders to offer loans to people who could not afford them. Those people moved out of affordable apartments and into unaffordable houses, and many of them are now homeless. You think we as a society don’t pay for that? That we don’t pay to feed and somewhat house them in tent cities? You’re not sharing my plane of reality if you do.
Those “undesirables” that you — well, not you but you, or some of you — complain about because they’re “sucking our resources” are not there out of their absolute own doing, and they sure as heck are not going to get out of it alone, either. It’s going to take a concerted effort on our part to attack our societal ills.
For example, low-cost or free access mental health would help people deal with the stress of not being able to pay bills, of losing their homes in the foreclosure mess, of losing their jobs in the recession, of losing their loved ones to the war, and of losing their minds in a battle on a foreign land. We all need mental health help, and there is no such thing as “sane”. There is a spectrum to which we all belong to. Many of us, and I’d like to think me, belong to the “typical” people. But there are always going to be those who are atypical and need our help.
I make about 55,000 dolars a year. From that, I pay the utilities at home, my car, my student loans, my food, and I have some left over for the occasional toy. I’m extremely grateful for the money I earn. Now, imagine living on 15,000 dollars a year, or what a family of two who is poor makes. Can they afford to give $1,500 to the government for taxes, leaving them with $13,500 for the year?
Now look at our Republican Presidential Candidate, he made $21 million dollars in 2010. Do you think he can survive on $18.9 million if he gives ten percent in taxes? God, I hope so. Do you think he can survive on $15 million if he gives a little more? God, I hope so too.
But the Romney’s really need that horse!
And it’s not just him. President Obama is also a millionaire. Do you think he could pay a little more in taxes than the rest of us? See, it’s not an issue of fairness. It’s an issue of what can you do, based on your position and your income and who your parents were and how you made your money, that can help not just those around you but, in the long run, yourself. A tax policy that makes it possible for poor people to contribute but not to the point where they are destitute while at the same time asking more of those who have more makes sense. It’s not socialism if it makes sense, is it?
So we have mental health and income inequality. What else? What else can we fix in a “socialized” way?
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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