The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 22, 2013

Somebody to lean on

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— A reader, who had recently experienced a significant health setback that affected his ability to work for a living, called last week to request that we report more rigorously on the availability of social services. Tough as times were, he seemed to be preparing for an even bleaker period.

During our conversation, the caller said he had been astonished to learn that there is a three-year waiting list for public housing. He had also found it extraordinarily difficult to access public transportation.

We talked about his situation, but he made the point repeatedly that his request was not entirely personal and that he thought the newspaper could provide a service to a lot of people whose circumstances had changed during our prolonged period of higher unemployment.

In human services, there is a merry-go-round of referral-denial-referral, a dizzying and frustrating ride that, unfortunately, too many of our fellow citizens experience when their luck turns bad.

There are probably many hard working and well meaning people employed as caseworkers, counselors, service providers and agency heads and that I have a tendency toward prejudice about entire occupations based on my limited and unsatisfactory experiences.

That “limited and unsatisfactory experience” comes from 40 years of covering communities, listening to my fellow citizens — like the caller on the phone — relate to me how humiliating and difficult it is to actually use the services that all taxpayers believe they provide for folks who are having a bad time of it.

About 10 years ago, when a police reporter tried to find shelter for a homeless veteran, we tried the 2-1-1 phone number. It advertised free and confidential information and referral. People were supposed to call 2-1-1 for help with food, housing, employment, health care, counseling and more. It didn’t take many calls to get us into a loop of rejections and back to the services that couldn’t help in the first place.

The 2-1-1 emergency referral number probably kept us from bothering the wrong human service agencies, but speedier access to rejection by underfunded human services doesn’t make the experience any more humane.

In the grand scheme, most of our pack behavior resembles an insurance company.

Pooling resources is not just how we deal with poverty, but also how we educate, defend, heal, progress and adapt.

I once lived in a state that depended so heavily on real estate taxes to fund schools that average homeowners would pay $10,000-$12,000 a year in school taxes. When readers would bring this up, we would ask if they had any children in schools. Were it not for public education, any household with more than one child would pay double, triple or more than the $10,000-$12,000 to educate their kids. It was surprising how few people looked at it that way.

The social compact works well enough when most people are thriving and can contribute a small portion of their well being to assist the few who temporarily need help.

The reason it is not working is that society, here and elsewhere, is experiencing a tectonic shift in the ratio of “thrivers to needers.” Wealth is consolidating in a narrower sliver of the population, creating a wider gap between the so-called 1 percent and the 99 percent.

The middle, which was sustained by two incomes, child care and then over-extended and fraudulently exploited family debt, is slipping measurably. The accelerating trend lines are visible on almost every fever chart of income and employment for the past decade.

We have yet to absorb this phenomenon, much less address it.

Most of us are stuck in shock, denial and anger, hence our petrified and polarized political debates over health care, food stamps and government spending.

A few have progressed to guilt or depression (hence the marginal concern about violent video games and gun sales).

Acceptance and hope await realization and reform. Some at the extremes of the political spectrum would add “revolution” to that list.

Of course, the revolution is already under way. The question now is whether we can get back together in time to avoid an even bleaker period.

n Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News