Why the social safety net is worth fighting for

Why the social safety net is worth fighting for

- in Progressive Voices

It’s hard to read or watch the news these days without coming across at least one story that centers around the economic hardships facing our nation – rising unemployment; falling housing prices; climbing national debt, which now sits at more than $14 trillion. And the U.S. infamously spends a larger portion of its gross domestic product on health care than any other industrialized country in the world, though our health outcomes are no better.

It’s no wonder that our political leaders are scrambling to find solutions, even while bumping heads in the process. Both sides want what’s best for America, but the process through which we work to achieve that has become increasingly contentious and politically charged. And I can’t help but believe that our own personal experiences and beliefs, not the persuasive views of political pundits, ultimately determine on which side of an issue we fall and what we deem worth fighting for.

Let me share a story.

When I was much younger, I didn’t think much about Medicare, Medicaid and other similar programs because my family, though working class, never had to depend on these resources. My father provided for our family of six by working full-time as a product engineer at a nearby plant. His salary allowed us to live in a modest home in a safe neighborhood; to take family vacations to the beach, mountains and places in between; and to enjoy a hot meal every day. My father’s hard work also allowed my mother to choose whether or not she wanted to work outside of the home, which often resulted in her leaving a job after a year or so and then picking up a new hobby to occupy her time – such as making ceramics, drawing or sewing. (I’m still distraught about some of the “experimental outfits” I was forced to wear to school, fresh from my mother’s sewing machine!)

Fast forward several years, and my family now faces the same harsh reality that many other American families encounter and struggle with. The plant where my father worked for more than 20 years laid off a large portion of its workforce in the late 90’s and sent the jobs overseas. My dad’s position was one of those cut.

Thankfully, he was able to find a comparable job (in terms of responsibilities, not pay) in a neighboring town, which enabled us to stay afloat for a while. We were completely blind-sided by what happened next, though.

At the age of 46, my mother was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure due to uncontrolled hypertension, and she was placed on dialysis. When my father’s new employer found out about my mother’s medical condition, it wasn’t long before they let him go. My parents were left to fight the greatest battle of their lives with only their faith as a safety net.

My brothers and I were already living outside of the home by then and were able to offer some financial support to our parents. For several months, my father struggled to find work and to care for my mom, which was a full-time job in itself. He explored every possible opportunity – even refinishing cabinets and building furniture for friends and other people in the community to help make ends meet.

In the end, our saving grace turned out to be one of the programs that lawmakers are now threatening to cut – Medicare. This program provides affordable medicine and other forms of treatment to dialysis patients, regardless of age. My parents have been able to survive thanks to Medicare and other forms of medical and financial support, such as monthly military stipends for my father’s years of service.

It is my prayer that others will see the value in protecting our nation’s safety net programs without first finding themselves in need of one. Once programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are defunded or, even worse, dismantled, it will be too late to join the fight. The best opportunity to make a difference is now.

Contact your state and federal lawmakers and ask them to protect our most vulnerable from future economic ruin; ask them to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Willona Stallings is Program Coordinator for the Partners in Health and Wholeness project at the NC Council of Churches.