On WOMR’s Alternative Radio the other night, I listened to a compilation of talks by Barbara Ehrenreich, who died on Sept. 1 and is best known for her groundbreaking undercover journalism in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which she recounts her painful years working at minimum-wage transient jobs. She observes that we have criminalized poverty with laws prohibiting loitering, vagrancy, and public drinking — each a side effect of being unhoused. She comes to understand the legion of traps that condemn many people to poverty, homelessness, and hunger, perpetuating the cycle rather than empowering people to escape it.
Hours earlier on WOMR, I heard Noam Chomsky comment on the costs of war and the truly insane magnitude of the trillion-dollar-a-year U.S. defense budget, essentially equaling the defense expenditures of all other nations combined. We have been led to believe that our commitment to endless war will make us safer. But the diversion of our national wealth to the weapons industry impoverishes nearly everything else, most especially the very real needs of our own people.
Food insecurity — limited access to adequate food to maintain health — now affects more than 10 percent of households. Over half a million people are homeless. Homelessness literally kills people, as David S. Morrison reported in the International Journal of Epidemiology in March 2009. Their life expectancy is only 50 years, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
These outrages are happening in the richest nation in the history of the world.
They are the collateral damage of an economic system that enriches those who are already rich and does so, quite simply, by taking from the already poor. About 12.8 percent of our population lives in poverty, with incomes and resources below any imaginable level of comfort. And they are here among us on Cape Cod, although not always readily visible.
Food pantries on the Cape report ever-greater demand, and we have no reason to think we are somehow an outlier. Clearly, the needs are very real among us. Poverty has spiked markedly here since the early 2000s, more so than in any other county in Massachusetts, and wealth disparity has been severely worsened by the jump in housing costs.
Many of these inequalities need changes that are beyond the realm of our local or regional government: tax fairness, universal access to health care, nutrition assistance, living wages. Statistics show the powerful effects that government programs can have on people’s quality of life and health. Since FDR, social safety nets have markedly improved life for millions of people. We know about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, SNAP, and unemployment insurance. There are many other programs that can also help those in the poverty trap.
We can hope for real advances across the Commonwealth with the prospect of a new and progressive governor. At the federal level, progress is more doubtful, given partisan gridlock. But our governments can and must commit to greater inclusiveness and equity in everything we do. The needs of the most vulnerable must be a first consideration in every policy considered. Are we reducing disparities, removing barriers, and leveling the playing field toward the goal of every resident having their basic human needs assured?
Working together, we are empowered. If these goals are ones you share, get involved and make your voice heard. Work with or push your representatives at all levels to make these concerns paramount.
Brian O’Malley, M.D. is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].