Friday, August 12, 2011

Hard Times - Part 2

The other day a consumer was listening to a conversation between two service providers when she suddenly leaned forward and asked me what the word “poverty” meant. Although she didn’t realize it, on that subject she was an expert. She knew all about “living poor” on public assistance and stretching out her food stamps so they lasted until the end of the month. But, what’s “poverty”?

So to follow-up, I asked a few consumers to comment on what it means to be disabled, poor and virtually invisible. (Names have been changed.)

Cora: Cora is a well-informed consumer in her mid-forties. She is meticulous in her clothing saying “People judge you.” An incessant reader, she comments that “I’ve had a library card since I was a little kid.” But years ago, with the onset of a mental health disability, she was obliged her to cut her formal education short. She says that she feels “scared” and “unsure” of herself most of the time, though she says that “I used to be really outgoing.” Despite having her own small apartment and relatives nearby, she is “…really not comfortable anywhere”.

Cora receives Medicaid and Medicare and recently wrote to her Congressman about her fears that the budgetary woes in Washington may cut some of her health care benefits and increase her costs. Her main question: “How would I survive?” Even though she says that her life is “not the life I wanted”, she has voted in every Presidential election since 1988.

Jim: “If I didn’t have a disability I’d still have my life, I lost everything. Bang. All of a sudden my life ended.” Two years ago Jim lost a leg. He had been working long hours to support his family and before his accident he was making $60,000 a year. Jim tells me “I’m lucky if I receive $12,000 a year now. Thank God I didn’t have to move and thank god my children were grown when I became disabled. The system doesn’t care about us. Our legislators have their Cadillac health plans by the grace of the American people.”

After losing his leg, Jim’s social security disability benefits were too low, so he was unable to obtain affordable private health insurance. So he turned to Medicaid. Medicaid told him he didn’t qualify for benefits because he was making too much money from those social security disability benefits. He was still recovering and anxious that he wouldn’t have the critical health care he needed and that future medical obligations might overwhelm him financially. He was then advised to obtain part time employment, and he was subsequently able to obtain Medicaid. Jim and his wife receive $52 in Food Stamps every month. His wife currently has no health care.

Robyn: Like many Americans, Robyn sighs when she says, “I’ve been looking for work for some time. I’m so far in debt.” Robyn was in a car accident many years ago and was diagnosed as quadriplegic. She receives some assistance around her home, but is very independent. Robyn has been trained as a paralegal, has a human service associate’s degree, and even has an accessible laptop computer that she hopes is an incentive for potential employers. She was working towards employment within a job training program for a legal not for profit and loved it, but because of funding cuts, she was let go.

Robyn explains that “my supplemental security income and social security disability are my lifelines, and if I lost my Medicaid services I would probably be forced into a nursing home.” Robyn has three children who visit her regularly and currently resides in a subsidized apartment. She is still unemployed.

Aspirations. Changed lives.

In all the recent discussion about debt ceilings and cuts, it’s vital not to forget what it’s really like “living poor”.

- Kate F.