COMMENTARY ‘No one asked us…’

‘Doomsday’ budget cuts that hurt society’s most vulnerable leads one Illinois worker to question if the ‘system’ is worth preserving.

Today I came home from work with another headache, jaw sore from clenching my teeth, drained emotionally and physically. I spent the whole day with people whose lives are being ripped apart. Hours spent trying to answer questions that had no answers, offer encouragement where none was merited, and ultimately knowing I failed on every level.

I work for a not-for-profit that provides support for disabled adults. The majority of people I work with have mild mental retardation and have several major medical issues. They work, if they are able to find work, with the aid of a job coach and a lot of support. They run out of food stamps before the end of the month. They cannot drive and rely on staff support to get them to appointments, count out and keep track of their medication, help them with grocery shopping and meal planning, remind them to do laundry, keep their apartments clean, and provide them with a means to take part in community activities.

Like many other social service agencies, the place I work at was informed that due to the inability of the Illinois General Assembly to pass a tax increase desired by the governor, deep cuts would have to be made and funding for many programs would be eliminated altogether or reduced so drastically as to be unworkable. These cuts mean that the 25 adults I work with as a direct support giver will be without any assistance beyond whatever the federal programs offer, such as Social Security disability.

Imagine being told that you will lose your means to get to work, your home, your means to grocery shop and all the people that make up your daily life. Imagine being told this and being unable to read, unable to do your own banking, unable to take care of yourself in the ways most of us take for granted. You can’t just move home with mom and dad — you are 40, 50, or 60 years old and your parents, if they are alive, are in no position to take care of you. You have questions, you have terrible fears, and none of the people you have relied on and trusted to help you have any answers.

So the past two weeks have been extremely difficult for all of us. Every single person I work with is facing the loss of all the structures and components that make up their life. They are all terrified. They all feel helpless, and angry. These are people who have spent a lifetime struggling to cope with a society that tells them daily that they are less than ‘normal,’ not worthy of much. Yet for the most part they remain polite, and friendly and optimistic. But this has gutted them.

Today I went to visit a 43-year-old man named Will. Will looks ten years younger than his actual age. Unlike many of the people I work with, he is in good shape – he is careful to work out regularly and eat as well as he can on his budget. He works at a discount store and does a good job, taking the train to work and back. He smiles a lot, and makes an effort to be friendly, even to strangers. This takes some extraordinary optimism on his part because strangers have not always been kind to Will. He does not look ‘disabled.’ But he cannot really read or write. He cannot drive or pay his own bills or — most significantly for him right now — handle the complexities of his medical treatment for stage IV melanoma. All of those tasks are currently handled by the staff that supports him. All of those services will end July 1.

Will does not understand why. When we spoke, he told me that he felt it was not fair. He didn’t want to lose the staff help. He didn’t know what he would do without the help, how he would live (neither do I). He has tried to do the right thing, he said, followed the rules, worked hard, been nice to people. Why was this happening?

His cancer, he understood, was just one of those things that was probably beyond anyone’s control and no one’s fault. But this – this was deliberate. The funding cuts were a decision quite within the control of those in power. And then he went silent for a bit. I stared out the window.

‘No one asked us,’ he suddenly said, quite forcefully for him (he’s very soft spoken normally). ‘No one asked us if it was okay to do this. No one asked us ANYTHING and we’re the ones who are hurt by it. It’s not right. No one asked us.’

No, they sure as hell did not. In this nation, when changes in public policy are made, who gets asked? The rich and the powerful. Those least affected are carefully consulted and their best interests put front and center. But as Scarlett O’Hara succinctly put it, it’s a sight easier to steal from the poor and weak than from the rich and strong.

A society that requires charity to care for the vulnerable is a sick society. Caring for those who cannot care for themselves should be a part of the social contract and a function of the collective – the government. Where are the pro-lifers when it comes to Will? Unfortunately for him, he has needs that extended for a period that exceeded the nine months of gestation.

The U.S. has made many sick choices regarding our priorities. There are thousands of examples like Will’s, examples of those with the least getting hit the hardest.

But here’s what I’m feeling right now: Any system that allows this – over and over again – is simply not worth preserving. We demand far too little and tolerate far too much. We will get nothing we don’t take.

I don’t know how long Will has to live. It’s likely somewhere in the 9-18 month range, given his current medical status. Should he have to spend the last year of his life dealing with this? Is keeping our state taxes ‘low’ worth that?

Yes, says every Republican member of the General Assembly, it is.

They have chosen sides. It’s time we do the same – whatever the cost.