Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Go Directly to Jail: Do Not Pass Go, But Do Collect Healthcare

This is kind of one of those “WTF” stories about which I feel compelled to comment:

Before I begin, I should note that this happened several months ago, but, akin to my obsession with Mad Men or love affair with Miley Cyrus, I am a little behind the times on current events and trends. I am, however, TOTALLY up-to-date on aimless internet browsing, which is how I found about about this.

To continue, this past June, in North Carolina, James Richard Verone planned and executed a $1 bank robbery with the intention that he would be incarcerated.  Laid-off from his job of 17 years, suffering from chronic pain, unable to afford healthcare, and denied disability insurance, Verone planned his imprisonment so that he might finally be able to obtain much-needed healthcare that had been denied to him through traditional means.  

In this country, we are loathe to view healthcare as a basic human right.  In fact, we are the only industrialized nation that does not have a universal healthcare system.  This is due, in large part, to  a market culture which views healthcare as a commodity—something which is bought and sold, can accrue profit,  and the cost of which is determined by basic laws of supply and demand, however manipulated those are.   Through Verone’s case, one sees that the only way to access healthcare as a right in this country is to become part of the penal system.   Let me just say, I find it deeply ironic and symptomatic of an unjust society that a citizen gains rights by virtue of being a prisoner. Yet this is the trajectory America has been on for many years, as social welfare, which, by definition, ensures the dignity and well-being of persons, has all-but collapsed (or, as in the case of healthcare, was never properly developed in the first place).  

Since the 1980s, it has been popular to decry social welfare.  Even in the face of staggering unemployment, rising poverty, low health outcomes, and ballooning inequality, many people still make the argument that every American has the ability to work, earn money for their labor, and, therefore, pay for their own well-being.  These folks carelessly label the numerous barriers to economic opportunity faced by women, minorities, disabled persons, and/or the impoverished as “laziness,” and argue that no red-blooded American taxpayer should fund another person’s sloth.

There are many fallacies with this reasoning, some of which I’ve alluded to already.  However, even if we are to lap up this song-and-dance routine, we will inevitably face the following truth: America is going to pay for her social ills (poverty, unemployment, illness, etc.) one way or another.   Currently, Americans do not pay for them at the front end.  Social services are extremely underfunded, contributing to an environment where job opportunity and economic prosperity elude many Americans.  The consequence is an ever-increasing labor surplus (aka unemployment) among the most vulnerable populations.  This surplus inevitably filters into prisons.  As of 2008, America is spending over $48 billion a year on the prison system-- outpacing all social spending, save Medicaid! And guess who foots that hefty bill?

One can logically reason, then, that we Americans will either fund a comprehensive, proactive, and functioning* social welfare system – one which ensures mental and physical health, job opportunity, adequate housing, childcare, safety, and educational equity--- or we will continue to fund prisons.  

The former option would ideally lead to economic prosperity for all, as all Americans could move beyond mere subsistence towards something greater.   Then, as we reached a more equitable and sustainable society, social services would become less necessary and taxes would go down in the long run.  In contrast, the latter do-nothing approach leads to economic prosperity only for those involved in the prison-industrial complex (or the military-industrial complex, as the armed forces also tend to be a bucket for the unemployed and poor).   This approach sweeps America’s problems under the rug (or into prisons, if you will) rather than providing real solutions.

Verone’s story exposes the welfare- vs. prison-funding dichotomy I have described above.  Granted, it is certainly made more interesting by the intentionality and creativity with which Verone entered the prison system.  At the end of the day, however, I worry that these types of desperate acts will increase in number as America continues its current economic and social trajectory.


*I am not so naïve as to think that social welfare is without its kinks.  There is a great deal of waste and graft in the system, all of which needs to be reformed. However, that is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

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