In the midst of the whole “Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life” kerfuffle, a cute little ditty of a video was dug up by the Up with Chris show on MSNBC. Filmed at a January campaign stop, it shows Mitt Romney insisting that people on welfare need to experience “the dignity of work” in order to receive public assistance.
As I watch this video, I am angry beyond words. I believe Romney was talking about TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) recipients, not people who are on SSI or Medicaid like me, but it doesn’t really matter. There is an unbelievably pervasive prejudice against people who receive any form of public assistance, whether it is TANF, unemployment benefits, food stamps, SSI, Medicaid or any other “entitlement”. People on welfare are looked down on. They need to learn the “dignity of work”. They are lazy.
Image: Political cartoon depicting two elephants. Mom is reading bedtime story to her daughter: “Once upon a time there was a wicked Welfare Queen who had the power to destroy entire economies with one AFDC check…” (Image via Autographed Letter Signed)
Yes, “lazy”. The construction worker who has been out of work for nine months and is collecting unemployment benefits so he can pay the mortgage on his family’s home is lazy. The single mom who can barely make ends meet working two low-wage jobs and depends on food-stamps to help feed her kids is lazy. The millions of kids who, for whatever reason, qualify for Medicaid are lazy. And of course, people like me, who have catastrophic illnesses or injuries and aren’t able to work, are lazy.
I’m not sure why, but there is a general anger towards anyone who receives public assistance. Sometimes I think it is jealousy. The Ugly Green Monster makes the haves (those who are able to work and support themselves) envy the have-nots (those who can’t), insisting the latter group is somehow getting a bigger or better piece of the piece than anyone else. The Ugly Green Monster couldn’t be more wrong. Think about it: would you prefer to have the satisfaction of doing meaningful work, earning a comfortable salary, paying your own rent/mortgage/groceries/clothing/tuition/extras and putting money away for retirement, OR would you rather be forced to live on approximately $700/month in SSI benefits?
Even though it is impossible to live high off the fat of everyone else’s labor on an income of approximately $8400 per year, there is widespread resentment towards modern-day welfare queens (and kings) like me. This anger can’t be chalked up to misplaced envy alone. We should have a culture of goodwill in this country, where everyone understands the importance of caring for the general welfare because none of us know when we’re going to need the public safety net. Instead, way too many people are infuriated by the notion that part of their paycheck goes to support people like me (or hungry families on food stamps or pregnant moms on Medicaid, etc). They don’t see themselves contributing financially to the common good but rather “sacrificing” some of their income for other peoples’ benefit.
Rather than a culture of goodwill, we have a culture of animosity towards anyone who receives public assistance. This hatred leads us to believe that people on “welfare” are “lazy” and don’t deserve help. But that’s just not true. The social safety net is there for all of us. We are all just a pink slip, medical catastrophe or financial disaster away from needing it.
February’s unemployment statistics were released on Friday. While we can all cheer about the 227,000 new jobs that were added last month, way too many people, especially folks with disabilities, are still unemployed. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate is 15.8% for people with disabilities (PWD) between the ages 16 and 64. Even more problematic is that only 19.9% of PWDs even bother to participate in the work force.
Let me sum this up for ya: In February, approximately 20% of people with disabilities were actively working or looking for work. Twenty percent! And for those people, the unemployment rate was nearly twice as high (15.8%) as the national average of 8.3%. I am not an expert on disability employment but these numbers don’t surprise me.
I am one of the 80% of PWDs who have simply dropped out of the labor market.
There aren’t a lot of options for people like me, people with disabilities and chronic conditions who aren’t able to work a traditional 40 hour/week job. I could work 10-15 hours/week. Maybe. In a good week. But I can do some work. I’m educated. I have skills. Highly desirable computer skills, in fact. I should be able to work to support myself and contribute to the economy at large.
There should be a way for me to work in some fashion. There really should be.
Goddess knows I’ve tried for the last seven years, pretty much since I was released from the hospital after my injury, to figure out how to earn a living. During the first two years, even as I was still in recovery and going to physical therapy as many as three times a week, I envisioned working part-time. I knew it was an impossibility. I did. But I also knew I was supposed to work and I beat myself up every single day I couldn’t.
After a couple of years, I gave up on the idea of a part-time job but I still felt incredibly guilty for not working, especially when my SSI checks arrived every months. I felt like I was a leech on society, feeding on the blood of the U.S. taxpayer.
I still have no idea how to re-enter the workforce and it’s terrifying. I’ve been on SSI for almost seven years.That’s seven years that I have not been contributing to Social Security or a private retirement fund. I am petrified about my long-term financial Security.
So, I’m back. The website was down for a while as I transitioned to a web server and got everything all spiffy-looking. Do you like it? The pink cosmo in the header is actually from my very own garden. (Yes, I am shamelessly begging for compliments.)
While I was offline, I’ve been thinking about where I want this blog to go and what kind of activism I want to be doing. I am a feminist and will always write about and fight for women’s rights. I am also a woman with multiple disabilities and I have started to shift my energies into fighting for disability rights. However, as time has gone by, it seems downright silly to me that disability rights are not a core element of the feminist movement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 1 in 5 women in the United States are living with disabilities. Surely an issue that affects 20% of U.S. women is a feminist cause, right?
Well, not really. Disability rights and feminism have historically been separate movements and it’s time to change that.
While other feminists with disabilities have tried to end discrimination and harassment of people with disabilities by focusing primarily on ableist language and privilege, I believe we need to think bigger.
The social model of disability, on the other hand, sees disability as a socially created problem and not at all an attribute of an individual. On the social model, disability demands a political response, since the problem is created by an unaccommodating physical environment brought about by attitudes and other features of the social environment.
What this means is that although I may have a hearing impairment (among other things), it is not what disables me. My hearing loss in itself is not what keeps me from fully participating in society. Instead, I am disabled and left on the sidelines of society because there are:
too many jobs that depend on being able to hear and listen, such as simply being able to return phone calls on a regular basis (I don’t always hear well on the phone, especially if I have to take down information)
too many restaurants, stores, theaters, auditoriums, churches, and other public spaces with background noise and bad acoustics that make it difficult to socialize, network and simply be with people
too many unintelligible PA systems in stores, airports, subways, airplanes, and public and private buildings of every sort that provide relevant and important information (I freak out a little on planes every time the flight attendants come on over the PA and I can’t understand a word they’re saying. Are they saying something I need to know, something safety-related, or are they just announcing they’ll be coming along with the drinks cart?)
too many teachers and professors who don’t talk loud enough, fail to provide written notes/outlines/PowerPoints so I can follow along or simply just talk to the black/white board
Those are just a few of the ways I am disabled by my hearing loss according to the social model of disability. As feminists, I think we need to be doing more to support our sisters with disabilities. Temporarily able-bodied (TAB) feminists need to join the fight to help women with disabilities secure our rights in the following areas:
Health care (including reproductive rights)
Sexual assault and domestic violence
Women in the military and women veterans
This is not an all-inclusive list and I am 100% positive I have forgotten some very important issues. I apologize for that in advance. Also, it goes without saying that all of these issues must be viewed through a multi-racial, multi-ethnic lens. Being disabled is not just about white, middle-class women. It is just about ‘American’ women, either. While I will probably focus more on North American women, disability is an international issue and we need to be mindful of that.
In the coming days, weeks and months, I plan to talk more about all of these things. I hope you’ll join in the conversation.
I’ve been doing some research on asset-building for people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments when I came across a few staggering statistics about people with disabilities:
People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and to live in poverty than any other single demographic group in the United States today.
As many as 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.
One-third of adults with disabilities live in households with total income of $15,000 or less, as compared to only 12 percent of those without disabilities.
More than 65 percent of individuals in poverty for 36 months or more during a 48-month period have a disability.
The poverty rate among people with disabilities is increasing relative to that of working-age people without work limitations.
Contrary to many people’s misinformed opinion, being on SSI is not a ticket to easy street. I am on SSI. My federal SSI payment is $674.00, or 74.6% of the Federal Poverty Level for a family of one. I live with family and am able to share expenses so I am able to able to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. I am one of the lucky ones.
There is a lot of discrimination and bigotry towards people who receive disability payments. I don’t know if it’s the same in other parts of the country but here in Wisconsin, people on disability are looked at suspiciously. We are judged. Others wonder why it is we can’t work because even if body part X doesn’t work, body parts K, L, M, N, O and P sure as heck do. Surely we could type or answer phones or at the very least be a greeter at Walmart!
What all of these people don’t see is the physical toll our disabilities and impairments take on our bodies. They don’t see that my self-cares take several hours in the morning and that some times, by the end, I’m so exhausted I don’t have the energy to do anything else but read a book that day. They don’t see that I may look able-bodied and “normal” but that I really and truly did have a spinal cord injury. My body is not the same as it used to be. I ran errands around town for several hours yesterday. I’m really tired today. I don’t know how I would’ve gone to an 8-hour work-shift job today, if I had to.
My long and winding point is this: Unless you really and truly know the individual personally and know they are being “lazy” and defrauding the system, don’t judge someone for receiving SSI/disability payments. It’s not an easy life. We don’t need your pity but we also don’t need your scorn.
Today is one of those days where my body is laughing at me saying, “Ha! You really think you could ever work a normal full-time job? Seriously? Are you out of your blooming mind?!” I won’t go into the details but suffice it to say that mobility returned to the extremities but not all of the internal organs. You figure it out. In any case, my full-time job over the last few days has simply been taking care of my physical needs.
I guess that’s why I’m on disability. I really wish I weren’t and I am working hard towards the day when I won’t be. As I’ve said before, I need low-cost health insurance (and a living wage) to get off SSI and Medicaid. That’s why I’m in favor of the public option.
But what the heck, President Obama? Over the past 48 hours, the Obama administration appears to be backing away from the public option. At Saturday’s town hall, President Obama gave a long-winded, three-point answer in response to one question on the public option. Later, while discussing whether or not a private plans could compete with a public option, he said:
This is a legitimate debate to have. All I’m saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.
Then, yesterday HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told John King on CNN that the public option is “not essential.” Watch:
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was on CBS’ Face the Nation, where he where he said, “the bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market.” He did say that the president favored the public option “thus far.” Watch:
On the one hand, I can live without a public option. My only main objective is that health insurance is affordable for low-income people like me. On the hand, seriously?! What the hell have we gone through all of this crazy B.S. for if there won’t be a public option. I’ve shed tears over this. Last week, I stood on a picnic table in front of strangers and briefly told my story. I let Sen. Russ Feingold tell the entire world my story on the Senate floor, all the freakin’ hope that maybe someday I will be financially independent again.
If Obama was going to cave on the public option, why bother even talking about it in the first place? This country has been torn even further apart because the Fox News crowd is using “socialized medicine” to stir up racial tensions. Members of Congress have gotten death threats. In my personal life, I fear I have lost or damaged at least one relationship with a loved one over this issue.
If Obama was going to cave on the public option, why did any of us even bother? Why did we elect him in the first place? I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary and I’m really proud I did. Where is my fierce advocate in the White House?
Progressives, if you believe in the public option, now is the time to get busy. Call, write, email, fax or tweet your representative and senators. (Find your representative here and your senators here. See top of page on both websites.) Last night on Twitter, Melissa Harris-Lacewell (@harrislacewell) suggested that everyone contact the White House demanding they support the public option. You can do that here.
The time is now. We need health care reform. We need a public option.