'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Sunday Afternoon at the Library 

A couple of weekends ago, I took my young son to an event at the downtown library here in Sacramento. It was an event for children with activities, music and a little drama to celebrate Mark Twain, who, because of his brief time in the Central Valley during the Gold Rush, has been adopted as the city's honorary intellectual and author. Certainly, you could do a lot worse, even if the emphasis is upon the Calaveras frog and Tom Sawyer without any acknowledgement of his hostility to plutocracy and imperialism.

I used to work at the superior court less than a block from the library for many years, so I am familiar with the area. Upon arrival for the event, I was surprised at the number of homeless people that I encountered at the library and the adjacent Cesar Chavez Park. I have never seen so many since I first started work at the courthouse in August 1988, and I was employed there through the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, frequently spending my lunch break reading in the park. Perhaps, I haven't been around there recently, and exaggerate it, but I doubt it. One commonly encounters homeless people taking cans and bottles out of recycling bins and offering to wash your windows at gas stations. Of course, this isn't unusual except for the increasing pervasiveness of it. Unfortunately, in this era of austerity, Sacramento County is refusing to fund winter shelters, and it will make life difficult for a lot people. Despite the stereotype about the great weather in California, Sacramento can be harsh in the winter because of the combination of rain, wind and temperatures in the 30 to 50 degree Fahrenheit range. Getting wet in mid-40 to mid-50 degree temperatures is, quite literally, life threatening.

It is just one indication that poverty is becoming a ubiquitous presence in Sacramento. Several weeks ago, I went to another Sunday event associated with my son's youth soccer team. It was a day for taking pictures, among other things, and I asked one of the parents of another kid on the team as to what package they were going to purchase. He explained that he was going to merely request the free one, one where you get a couple of pictures, because he couldn't afford more than that. Mind you, the more inexpensive packages cost $11 and $16 dollars. But that's a lot when you don't have anything. I considered this experience an important indication about the extent of poverty in Sacramento because parents will find a way to purchase these sorts of things about their children if at all possible. My guess is that there is a large number of families who can't even pay for the association fee to get their children into the soccer league.

With the exception of the homeless, people conceal their poverty. Given the egalitarian nature of dress in this country, it is hard to distinguish people in regard to their economic security. But there are measures. Consider this article from the Sacramento Bee yesterday:

During panel discussion on the state's shrinking safety net, Bruce Wagstaff, director of the Countywide Services Agency, said the impact of the situation can be seen at the agency's offices on 28th and P streets, where a long line forms outside every morning before the building opens.

He said the challenges are as great as he has experienced in nearly 40 years in government.

People are going to the agency in record numbers for CalFresh (formerly called food stamps), CalWORKS and cash assistance, and Medi-Cal, Wagstaff said. CalWORKS enrollment is up by about 20 percent; CalFresh enrollment has gone up by about 50 percent.

One in four county residents is served by the county's welfare agency, Wagstaff said.

Meanwhile, the federal government is obssessed with the deficit, a deficit that, paradoxically, will grow if the economy is starved of an effective stimulus. The government has been captured by those with an ideological belief that the populace abuses social support programs and need to be encouraged to rely upon them less. The Obama administration's recent Medicare cost containment proposal is a typical example of it:

The proposal would require new beneficiaries to pay higher deductibles before Medicare coverage of doctors’ services and other outpatient care kicks in. The deductible, now $162 a year, is already adjusted for inflation. Mr. Obama would increase it further by $25 in 2017, 2019 and 2021.

In addition, the White House would increase Medicare premiums by about 30 percent for new beneficiaries who buy generous private insurance to help fill gaps in Medicare.

Many beneficiaries choose these private Medigap policies because they want the financial security they get from the extra insurance. But the White House said this protection gives individuals less incentive to consider the costs of health care and thus raises Medicare costs.

This is, of course, neo-Reaganism, a neoliberalism that punishes people for finding a way to obtain necessary medical care without concern for the cost. Many senior citizens live on fixed incomes, as my mother did, and Medigap insurance is necessary to prevent them from going broke when confronted with the urgency for immediate medical care. My mother was billed over $40,000 for an two emergency room visits and subsequent inpatient care. Without Medigap insurance, she would have been required to pay around $8,000 out of pocket. Fortunately, unlike many, she could have done so, at least this one time, but it goes beyond money. The purpose of such a proposal is to encourage people to deprive themselves of medical care because no one can know the cost with certainty prior to requesting it. It places people in the impossible position of diagnosing their condition before seeing a doctor. Just as union members have been maligned by the President because they have Cadillac plans for their health care, and must therefore, over time, be financially penalized in an attempt to coerce them into abandoning them, so must the seniors savvy enough to protect themselves with Medigap insurance. The cruelty of the neoliberal proponents of such policies is masked by the bland, actuarial language of accountancy, a language the privileges the profit and loss statement over people.

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