Wisconsin Steel, East Side of Chicago

Looking at the “Better Health Bill”, or the out-of-touch continue to poke holes in a sinking ship

Looking at the “Better Health Bill”, it’s old, so old, such old thinking.

As I read over the various points of the Republican “healthcare” bill, one of the most shocking points is it penalizes people in their 50s and up, forcing them to pay lots more. I think their idea is that people in their 40s-50s-60s are set in life and well to do, but that is a terrible misnomer of modern America.

In the world we live in today most of our disabled, un-employed, and underemployed people are in the age range of 45-65. People who do laborious jobs have short term careers because they are only a benefit for as long as they are able to labor. When an overworked middle-aged furniture delivery man hurts his back in a way that takes him out of that kind of work forever, then what? You don’t see a lot of 50-year-old furniture delivery men. Think of the 50 year old waitress cowering under a twenty pound platter of pancakes. Sure, I’ve had favorite waitresses with more energy than me deep into their seventies, but not everyone has that kind of stamina or good genes. Some people have weaker bodies, some people get injured on the job and are unable to ever work again.

Or maybe they live in a factory town that folded and they are stuck. That feeling of hopelessness and lack of opportunity can cause mental illness for entire communities, anxiety and depression become cornerstones of life. The failed housing project experiments of the 1960s showed that, it’s the same way in dried up coal towns and dead steel mill towns too.

When I was in about fifth grade the steel mills by my house closed. They employed tens of thousands of people at a time. At first it was just some layoffs, then retirement packages for anyone over 20 years on the job. Then the mills just up and closed, locking workers out without warning. The union promised everyone would still get their pensions, payouts, and benefits, but eventually that promise was broken too. It was right about the same time the newly elected President Reagan refused the negotiate with the air traffic controllers and destroyed the power the union, steel was gone in the blink of an eye. Now 60,000 were suddenly unemployed in my South Side of Chicago community.

My Aunt Francine’s second husband Kenny, known to me as Uncle Kenny for about a decade, had worked in the steel mill since he’d finished high school, his father probably had too, it was generational, sometimes four generations deep. He went from earning $35 an hour as a mill janitor for the last 15 or twenty years to suddenly having the opportunity to work at McDonalds for $4.25 an hour. Imagine, there were tens of thousands of men facing that same moment, looking in the help wanted ads after 15, 16, 17 years at the steel mill, and seeing fast food jobs and little else. This was the scenario playing out in the homes of at least seventy to eighty percent of the kids in my school. Even more, considering all the people who worked in fields that supported the mills – the trucking companies, warehouse workers, restaurant staff, and uniform companies clothing 20,000 man shifts across half a dozen mills. Businesses across the region shuddered completely or suffered their own layoffs and lack of income.

At first Uncle Kenny hung out in the garage of a neighbor who’d also worked at the mill, along with half a dozen other mill guys on the block, at first they just waited for the whole thing to blow over. The mills commonly did seasonal layoffs over the years, so initially they hung out drinking beer and waiting it out, then as reality set in and the options set forth for a whole community of people was laid out things got really bad. Months went by, then a year. Uncle Kenny found no work, and problems in the marriage eroded any original love.

A couple steel mills remained, but now much of the work was automated, requiring far fewer workers, and with the unions crushed they were able to set wages down to about a third of what they had been. You were lucky to have a job, they said. A generation of families were collectively crushed. The newspaper regularly reported thousands lining up for minimum wage jobs at a new fast food restaurant or a discount merchandise store.

Aunt Francine and Uncle Kenny divorced a while later. The kids in my school changed too, they grew pasty faced, many of them were getting beaten, some moved away, a lot of families split up. That’s what happens. A generation of men were collectively destroyed as everything they had lived their lives for was gone. The middle class was done for in my community and the living wage became a fairy tale not unlike the Snow White of my early childhood.

Even today, some forty years later, the industry on the South Side of Chicago rules with an iron fist, jobs are fought for, even at the reduced pay, mass pollution is accepted as fear of factories leaving for elsewhere allows them to be catered to, and  people are broken, broke, and hopeless.

Tangent aside, this is a fairly common scenario played out in towns and cities all over America. Where is the 53-year-old mailman whose knees are shot from years of walking, and perhaps an unfortunate slip on the ice, supposed to go? Or the factory worker who ingested too much lead dust and can no longer focus long enough to do any job well? I think of a couple who used to live next door, in their mid-fifties, the husband had a stroke and his wife is now his caregiver. How can they afford to pay more for medical care? What should they do — die in the street? If so, then where is our humanity?

A society is regarded for the art and culture that they leave, for the health and prosperity of it’s people. How will America be remembered as we allow families to bankrupt over illness, as a simple toothache cannot get care and grows into life-shortening abscess? I am not sure when healthcare and retirement became an “entitlement”, it would seem to be a human right in a civilized world, not a luxury.