Poverty, Addiction, and Medicaid Cuts: A Former Addict's Call to Occupy Wall St.
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Nearly eight years ago this former addict found himself hopelessly addicted to narcotics and in need of a medically monitored detox and rehabilitation. I got the help I needed through, you guessed it, Medicaid. Jobless, uninsured and without the money to pay for rehab, the Department of Welfare footed my bill. After getting and staying clean, I payed this debt to the state back through (1) the prevention of my own need for future publicly funded services by returing to the labor force, (2) the taxes on my future labor production, and (3) the easing of costs to tax payers of other addicted individuals by returning to the same neighbors where I used drugs to do social work for programs shown to reduce the social costs of addiction. This is your social safety net, people, working exactly the way it was designed to.
Philly’s poverty-and-addiction dynamic isn’t unique. Detroit, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis…long is the list of once-great American cities still reeling from the abandonment of industry and now collapsing from within under the weight of poverty and addiction.
Yet suddenly, as if overnight, the Occupy Wall Street movement has sprung up, tapping into an underground river of fear and fury of the many millions of Americans—not just the college grads with $50,000 in student loans and no job—who are beginning to recognize that they, too, may be left behind “when the economy recovers.” They are asking, with growing urgency, what if this time it’s different? What if the jobs don’t come back? What if this—what we are living through now—is the “new normal”? If so, then why are we destroying the safety net; “reforming” Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security; blowing up the New Deal, the Great Society, and the entire social contract that drove the 20th century, just when we need them most? Who owns America anyway?
“We are the 99%,” the rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement, is a shorthand way of asking all these questions, of mobilizing the fear and fury at the growing economic disenfranchisement, at the corporate corruption and greed that we all know got us into this mess—and that has largely managed to escape “reforming.” May a thousand Occupy Wall Streets bloom. (This weekend there are OWS actions planned on both Saturday and Sunday. To find an occupation near you, go to the Occupy Together website.)
But where does the street-level drug addict living in an abandoned house in North Philly fit into the occupation scheme? Some protesters at the various occupation sites have reportedly tried to bring “drug law reform” messaging into the discussion of OWS goals, but are being shouldered aside by those who hope to counter the media’s defensive criticism that the movement is unfocused by keeping its demands narrowly focused on banking reforms.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has hung progressive drug-law reformers out to dry, continuing to pursue an enforcement strategy that will shut down even the burgeoning medical-marijuana movement. How will addicts get needed but controversial services like safe, legal heroin injection sites when the biggest, strongest advocacy groups are getting shut down by a Democratic president over decriminalizing marijuana? Addicts remain a disorganized, financially compromised crowd, and many of those in recovery choose to remain anonymous, hampering the ability to form grassroots coalitions that could engage in political direct action to stop cuts to addiction treatment funding.
America’s cities are facing bankruptcy. Philadelphia, like many other poor cities dependent on barely adequate state funding that is currently under fierce attack by Republican governors bent on dismantling government behind the banner of fiscal austerity, is in for a rough ride. Those of us on the front lines, forced to work with dwindling resources to provide fewer services, can’t work miracles. Those who are fortunate enough to still live inside the contracting circles of privilege, even those progressives who are part of the 99%, need to recognize that the bottom 10% are already living your worst nightmare. When we come to occupy Wall Street—or, in Philly, CIty Hall—listen to those of us who are honored to speak on their behalf, and lend us greater support if we are all to make it through these hardest of hard times.