by Paul Perkins
Health care is a human right. No one should have to suffer or die because they can’t afford to pay for a drug that can make them well. No one should have to walk around sick or watch a child die because there isn’t money to pay a doctor. No working-class person should lose the savings from a lifetime of labor because he or she falls ill. Talk about immoral!
This principle came home to me recently through the technological magic of social media, which enabled me to reconnect with an old friend with whom I had not spoken in nearly 25 years. We’re both from a Southern state one associates with images of Jim Crow segregation and bigoted stereotypes demonizing the poor and less fortunate. I moved from there to the West coast, and my friend (whom I’ll call Maggie) remained in the South.
I was delighted to find Maggie again. We began a conversation on-line, catching up on all that happened in our lives since that long-ago evening when we parted. Then one day I shared an article with Maggie, a piece that addressed homelessness and the difficulties faced by people who find themselves out of work with no resources. I thought it would be meaningful to her because I knew that there had been a period in the ‘90s when she found herself in that situation.
To my amazement and dismay, Maggie responded with a stream of vitriol worthy of a Tea Party apparatchik, all about parasitic welfare queens too lazy to work, milking the system by continually popping out babies and getting rich on the taxpayers’ dime. She said things like, “I know them. They think they’re entitled. I see them when they line up in WalMart with their brats, buying groceries with my tax money.” This was the sort of wearisome nonsense I used to hear as a child, sitting around the dinner table with my white, racist Republican family.
Maggie isn’t white, which makes her attitude that much more disturbing. Even more troubling is the fact that she is a professional woman, Christian, and educated in one of our nation’s finest universities. Sadly, the incident changed my feelings toward my friend. After this exchange, I found myself backing off, we communicated less and less, and now it’s as though we had never found each other again after all those years.
The Maggie story points to an attitude in American society that stands in the way of our recognizing health care as a fundamental human right. It’s that viewpoint that the poor are poor because they’re lazy, that their poverty is the result of flawed character or moral failing, instead of the consequence of being born in the wrong place or with the wrong skin color, or of a family that doesn’t have the social or political connections necessary for their children to attend a decent school. The attitude: because people are less fortunate they are somehow leeches milking the rest of us “hard-working Americans” dry.
These accusations even get leveled at the working poor, some of whom work more than one substandard job and still haven’t sufficient means to provide for themselves and their families. The attitude is also related to the pernicious Horatio Alger myth–the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” rags-to-riches bit: the poor are poor and deserve their fate because they lack the moral compass to subscribe to the ‘profound truth’ of a 19th century writer of juvenile fiction.
Then there are the right-wing governors and legislators in the states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, who pride themselves on failing to make that program available to low-income people. Sick people, who would get better with access to affordable health care, are dying as a direct result of these legislators’ refusal to allow them access to a public benefit that is already the law of the land. Why is this happening? The attitude: those people don’t deserve to have health care because they’re too lazy to work and pay for it.
With a prevailing attitude like this, is it a surprise that we don’t have single-payer or (God defend apple pie, grandma and the American way!) socialized health care in this country?
Americans talk a lot about rights, but we don’t do much about them. What good are freedom of speech, association, religion, etc. if you’re unable to afford food for your table, a decent place to live, or medical care for a sick child? It’s great that our Constitution enshrines those rights, but as Americans we need to stop ignoring other fundamental human rights, such as the right to health care, the right to food, to clothing, to a safe home, and to meaningful work. Yes, these are rights, and we need to stop acting like they are not.
In a recent conversation, someone pointed out to me that this is more than a practical issue. It’s practical as far as that goes. The outrageous cost of health care in a system that profits off human misery and impacts our nation in myriad ways. But beyond the practical, the issue is a moral one. The U.S. is a nominally secular nation, but in fact most Americans are Christians of one stripe or another, including those right-wing governors who are some of the loudest voices claiming to uphold “Christian” values.
So what about those values? What did this man Jesus actually teach? I seem to remember that he spent a lot of time going from place to place, healing the sick and assisting the poor. In fact, he is the man who said, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. …Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”1 This is a man who ministered to the sick, uplifted the downtrodden, and preached that we should take care of the poor.
Christian values: help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. So how do these values jibe with Republican governors gloating over denying health care to the needy? Governors, legislators–public servants–denying health coverage and letting people die rather than spend tax money that has already been offered to them to provide that benefit? Elected officials denying well-being to the working people who built this nation? People's lives are less important than insurance companies profiting from human misery? Seriously? So we have people in positions of power saying the poor don’t deserve health care. This, from people who claim to be followers of the Guy who turned over the tables and drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip!
Of course such values aren’t Christian. Exactly where did these so-called values come from? Whence this idea that the poor are deservedly so? Well, some of it is racism pure and simple. Disproportionate numbers of people of color in this nation fall into the ranks of the poor and disadvantaged. But there are other ideas floating in our culture these days, prominent among them the idea that health care is a commodity to be marketed, which only those who earn it should receive.
This brings up another author of fiction, Ayn Rand, whose writings, and the fascist philosophy they describe, have had an impact on American attitudes beyond what anyone anticipated when the ascendancy of the Right in American politics began around 30 years ago. Rabid individualism, laissez faire economics, anti-intellectualism, extreme social Darwinism are all ideas championed by Ayn Rand. When you look at the values of the Tea Party and those smug Republican governors in light of what Rand says in Atlas Shrugged, it becomes clear what values are actually in play. The right wing, who ostensibly follow the teachings of Jesus, in fact have based their morality on the crackpot novels of a wannabe Nazi.
Again, with people like this in power, are we surprised that we’re arguing over whether health care is a human right? Anyone who says the less fortunate deserve their fate, that sick people deserve treatment only if they can pay for it is not a moral person. We are ill-served listening to them.
Quality health care is rightfully a public good, something that should be part of our commons, a matter of our basic rights as citizens of this once great nation. Don’t buy into immorality masquerading as its opposite. Stand up. Declare for all to hear that health care is a human right that will no longer be denied by those seeking to line their own pockets. Insist that our elected leaders enact single-payer health care, not just in Oregon but in all of America. It’s a step in the right direction that will make us a better state and nation. It is the moral thing to do.
Rise up. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
1) Luke 14:21-23 (KJV)
Paul Perkins chairs the Susan Wheeler Club in Portland and calls himself a progressive Pentecostal Christian and committed Marxist. He is a self-employed virtual assistant, meaning that he does administrative work including business writing, transcription, vendor panel management, Internet research, background checks, etc. for a variety of clients.
Perkins' interest in Health Care for All-Oregon is due to his personal experience as a micro-businessperson, unable to afford health insurance. He became ill last year and had to have emergency surgery, which cost him his life savings and left him with nothing but the proceeds from his business to pay bills and get by. Perkins and his colleagues are now coalition partners of HCAO, dedicated to the effort to enact single-payer health care in Oregon.
And the story continues. . .
Visit his website HERE.