The joy of food stamps

Training continues to be a somewhat uneven and slipshod process, but in the mean time I have been able to do a tiny little bit of what I came out here to do: work, help people less fortunate than myself. As I gain more interaction with the residents, and reading up on a few case histories, I have a few observations to make about life in paradise, whilst of course keeping to my confidentiality obligations.

Gratuitous cruelty

The penal system in the United States embodies everything wrong about the ‘punishment first’ school of justice. I could prattle on for days about this and that; inflexibilities, cost, dehumanisation, the obscenely high incarceration rate (more people are in prison here than in China. Not just per capita, but in absolute terms too) and much more, but let me just use a new perspective I’ve learned whilst being in Key West to illustrate such gratuitous and counter-productive cruelty. Quite apart from the obviously daft decision to incarcerate those with mild to moderate mental illness, whose ‘crimes’ were clearly only committed due to their condition, upon release, people are regularly denied essential items that were provided when inside. People released with a single day’s supply of their medication (or none at all), despite the fact that such a drug takes weeks to apply for; people released without lotion which causes their skin condition to worsen and begin to scar; fragile and insecure people kept locked up for a day after the time they were scheduled to be released because the court notes were not properly kept. All of which doesn’t just show contempt for the supposedly free citizen being released, it also clearly poses an enhanced risk of homelessness, poverty and recidivism, which starts the whole evil business all over again.

Economic insecurity

In addition it’s notable just how precipitous a decline many of our residents have had. And such volatility and insecurity clearly echoes very strongly the experience of many Americans in the Great Recession of 2008. Comments are casually made about life 2, 5, 10 years ago; ‘I used to have a house with a pool and a Jacuzzi’, ‘I’ve worked in every restaurant in Key West’ and such like. That’s the reality in a society of sink-or-swim Capitalism. There are a lot of people sinking, and with a sadly atrophied social(ist) safety net and only a thin layer or charities to rescue people, there’s not a lot stopping people from drowning.

Reminder: the NHS is a wonderful thing, don’t let Cameron dismantle it any further

Whilst many are sinking, there are far more people barely treading water. Half of all bankruptcies in America are related to healthcare costs. If you find yourself in need of an operation and can’t pay for it, can’t get time off work to have it, you’re screwed. Medical emergencies are financial emergencies. And one of the nicest people I’ve met here may be approaching a cliff in this regard. Having to pay for healthcare utterly changes your frame of mind towards it; the odd ache is ignored, and put off, and rationalised to avoid paying for a medical examination until the situation deteriorates so much that the pain is unbearable and the patient is rushed to A&E. The aggregate effect of millions of people making the same decisions represents one of the many huge economic inefficiencies which makes the US healthcare system so expensive and so crappy: it costs more in the long run to let problems become severe before seeking medical help. Prevention is better than a cure.

And all this in contrast to the remarkably efficient NHS, part of Labour’s post-war socialist heritage, that Cameron’s new health secretary has called ‘a sixty year mistake’.

But I already knew this

I knew this. I knew almost all of it before from my personal research and reading. So what’s changed? Exactly what I hoped would change when I decided to come out here and work. I am beginning to move from an intellectual and academic opinion that Socialism should be my thing to an emotional link to what it means, practically, on the ground to be politically aware. I’m very happy to feel moved enough to start to build a profound belief from the foundation of my opinion. This is the political aspect to my aims which I referred to in my first post. Huzzah!

Gratefulness and stoicism

Two things characterise the response I’ve had from residents when helping them and talking to them. Firstly, stoicism and secondly gratefulness. The stoicism of the residents towards their situation is remarkable. They just try to get on with their life. Maybe it’s because of my privileged upbringing, but if the things which have happened to them, happened to me, I would be fucking angry at the world, angry at life! But mostly they just accept it and shrug their shoulders. Secondly, the wave of gratefulness from residents who have gone a great deal of their life with nobody caring for them, helping them, being nice to them, supporting them, and have been screwed over by a profoundly unfair economic system, the wave of gratefulness that comes from them when I do something as simple as setting up their food stamps makes me incredibly happy, and stands tribute to the real genuine goodness of the human spirit I’m dealing with.

Phew, that felt good.

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