This is my fourth letter to you, my sister state, for we are all sons and daughters of this democracy, however embattled it now may be. And it must be remembered that in modern times, no presidential candidate has reached the White House without Ohio’s blessing. So I come to you once again, with a heavy heart, to see if those among you who care so deeply for our country, can still embrace the notion that all of us belong.
There was 10-year-old boy I met one day in my work as a lawyer for low-income families. His mother brought him to me because he was deeply depressed. Two thoughts bumped about in my mind when I made his acquaintance. The first was that I had never met a boy of 10 who was deeply depressed. The second was that it seemed odd a mother should seek help for a depressed child from a lawyer.
The boy was a beautiful, brown-skinned, big-eyed, dark-haired youngster whose eyes followed closely the adult conversation. He sat uncomfortably in the chair across from my desk, while his mother described the problem. He was facing charges in juvenile court for loitering and non-attendance at school. He didn’t want to get up in the morning, didn’t want to walk to the bus, couldn’t get through the school day, wasn’t interested in anything. Adults who have experienced some of the more vexing challenges in life have endured similar feelings when responsibilities become overwhelming or unexpected losses occur. But to be 10 years old, in the blossom of a young life, suffering from despair? Of course it happens, but in this boy’s case, the cause seemed to be all of us.
It was you, Dear Ohio, and we, California, and all 50 states who put him in the spot in which he suffered such despair. We have approved the systematic, relentless rollback of public benefits, food stamps (or SNAP), payment to health care providers for the poor, means-based disability benefits, and every other effort government has made in the last 50 years to arrest the decline of persons who fall into poverty, or to build a foundation that can help them retool to compete in an unforgiving global job market.
We are in the process of shrinking government support for all who need it and expanding it for all who don’t. Today’s welfare rolls are much lower than they were at the time federal welfare reform was passed in 1996. But more people are living in deep poverty (incomes lower than one-half the official poverty line) than at any time since this measure of penury was initiated in 1975. More people are living below the income level required for self-sufficiency. They are not officially considered poor, but they don’t make enough to pay basic expenses. More people are living on unsustainable incomes in unsustainable jobs with few or no benefits. No wonder the unemployment figures are so low. Americans are working at a fever pitch to try to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
Which brings me back to the boy of 10. He lived on a front porch, the only place his mother could afford to rent in an urban environment with rising rents. She searched everywhere for affordable housing, but everything required more money than she could possibly have saved from her meager income, even if she had saved for years.
Even if she could have obtained the security deposit, first month’s rent and paid the rent thereafter, there was more to pay. Landlords are allowed to amplify their rent with undulating water-sewer-trash bills that can add another $100 to $200 to the cost of rent. Who among low-income earners has $100 extra each month?
There is no extra. There is rent, utilities, phone and transportation. There is health care when you can afford it, and massive bills that go to collection agencies when you can’t afford it. There are monthly bus fees too expensive to pay, forcing you to pay by the trip for yourself and your kids. The doctor’s office, the grocery store, the school. Sometimes you try to ride for free so you can get to work when you have no cash, and you end up with a huge fine that also goes to collection. You skimp on food to pay bills. At the end of the month, you end up with watery soup, or a moldy potato, or a bowl of beans for dinner. Condiments are gone. After the first 10 days of the month, fresh produce is gone. There’s no milk, no flour, no oil, and no toilet paper. If you get caught replacing the toilet paper with napkins from a local fast food place, you can get arrested.
When everything is lost, and your mom is working as hard as she can, and you’re living on someone’s front porch with only brief bathroom privileges, you wonder if life will go on this way indefinitely. People tell you, “Study hard, and someday you’ll get a job that pays good money, and you can help yourself and your family. Don’t give up.” But at 10 years old – let’s see – that would mean hanging on to hope for eight more years of middle and high school, at least four years of college (if you could afford it while you struggle to pay living expenses of your own), some kind of entry-level job for a year or so, and then – the big moment! A job that pays a decent wage. We won’t even talk about whether that job will last.
Did you ever wonder, Dear Ohio, if you could hold onto hope for all those years? Did you ever wonder if you might succumb to depression at the age of 10 if you were smart enough to see that for the next 12 or 15 years, you would have to live a completely error-free existence regardless of the severity of hardships, and your efforts would have to be met by the most generous responses of life itself?
I worry about you, Dear Ohio. Have you grown comfortable telling yourself that piling taxpayer dollars into cash-rich commerce, whose interests are no longer American but global, will brighten your future and that of this 10-year-old boy? Have you convinced yourself that ballooning a military budget to finance unexamined expeditions across the world is worth the sacrifice of hope for millions of children who have no assurance they will eat a meal, or sleep in a place fit to call “home?”
When the budget experts come after Medicare and Social Security to pay for the abundant hopes of the global palace-dwellers, perhaps you will awaken us all from our moral slumber. Then you can cast your auspicious election spell upon a candidate who can set us all on the road to becoming one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.\
To read Joni Halpern’s previous open letters in this series, click here.