Positive social change is one of the major headings on my website. Before I focus on social justice, which is the underpinning of social change, I want to give an example of how “everything old is new again”, by sharing one of the social change activities that I was involved in back in 1976, when I was president of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. I wrote the following article for our monthly newsletter, and also published it in my 2010 memoir, From Blind Obedience to a Responsible Faith.
The purpose of the article was to rally the social work community to put pressure on our state legislators to pass a Medicaid Bill. At that time, Arizona was the only state in the union that did not have a Medicaid program. The legislation for Medicaid was created by the Social Security Amendments of 1965 which added Title XIX to the Social Security Act. Each state had the option to legislate and administer its own program, but after 11 years of political bickering in the Arizona legislature, they had not reached an agreement. In the meantime thousands of families in Arizona, were not able to afford health insurance. I started the article with a quote that is the underlying concept for the belief in society’s responsibility for assisting the disadvantaged.
To keep the article up to date, I’ve changed the names of several of the possible authors:
“Health of mind and body is so fundamental to the good life, that if we believe that men and (women,added) have any personal rights as human beings, then they have an absolute moral right to such a measure of good health as society and society alone is able to give them.”
For $64,000, which of the five listed below was the author of that statement?
- Mitt Romney
- John F. Kennedy
- Barack Obama
- Ayn Rand
If you chose Aristotle, you win. That’s correct, the same Aristotle who was the pupil of Plato, the tutor of Alexander the Great, who lived between384-332 BCE, and who spelled out societies obligation to provide health care for all its citizens over 2,300 years ago.
Cultural Lag? Meanwhile, back in Arizona, forces seemed to be mounting to keep the medically indigent as second hand citizens. Although Medicaid was and is far from a perfect system, it does offer access to health services, and recognizes that health care should be available to those who can’t afford it. Unlike Medicare, which is an insurance program, that people who are covered by it are entitled to receive, Medicaid is a “means tested” program that is based mainly on income.
We Can Make a Difference! If Medicaid is to be a reality in Arizona, the voices of professional social workers must join other concerned citizens to be heard above those of the ultraconservative politicians and media who oppose its implementation. Rather than just deploring the fact that we are the only state without a Medicaid program, our social action committee will be asking each one of us to express our concerns to our individual legislators that this legislation be passed. This is our opportunity to join with Aristotle and other progressive thinkers to operationalize our professional philosophy.
Don Fausel, President
I’m happy to report that the legislature passed the Medicaid bill that session. The legislators chose to call it the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (ACCCS) rather than Medicaid. I suspect they wanted to let the rest of the country know that we weren’t liberals like that Aristotle guy.
We did use a version of the strategy that has recently been called, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), i.e. joining with other groups to march and demonstrate at the state capital, and other places, placards and all, but our major social change strategy was to focus on individual legislator for their votes. The demonstrations were mainly to get their attention.
Aristotle’s statement was clearly not suggesting “handouts” for the health of mind and body; he was addressing society’s responsibility for those who could not provide for their own medical needs. In some ways our own Declaration of Independence echoes Aristotle’s wisdom. Just as his statement secures our rights to health of mind and body, so the signers of the Declaration echoed those same rights, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” If indeed these rights are unalienable, how could we live our lives, be free, and pursue happiness, if we didn’t have what Aristotle identified as “…an absolute moral right to such a measure of good health as society and society alone is able to give them.”? The hungry cannot eat retroactively, nor can the sick be healed retroactively! I suspect that Aristotle and the founding fathers were including the 99% of our fellow citizens, not just the 1%, who are billionaires and millionaires.
In our society ever since the social legislation passed during the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, there has been an ongoing battle between progressives and conservatives of how much responsibility government has to meet the needs of the poor members of our society. In general, the Democrats favor more government intervention with programs for the disenfranchised, and more government regulations to protect all of us from the avarice and exploitation of the greedy, while the Republicans rely on a laissez-fair economy, and to let the private sector and charities take care of the poor. Basically, it’s the difference between one’s view of social justice and charity.
This was apparent in the way Herbert Hoover tried to handle the devastating unemployment of the Great Depression that stared on October 29, 1929, just 24 days before I was born. Hoover did not believe that the depression would last. “Prosperity is just around the corner” is what he said to businessmen in 1932 when things were just about at their worst. Squalid cardboard campsites were created in many cities. They were called “Hoovervilles”. The nick-name of the soup given out by charities for the unemployed was “Hoover stew”.
Hoover also had an archaic expectation of the principle of subsidiarity, when he said “It is not the function of the government to relieve individuals of their responsibilities to their neighbors, or to relieve private institutions of their responsibilities to the public.” Despite an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude, Hoover and the government stood detached. The president limited himself to offering rhetorical encouragement to local charities to come to the aid of the poor and unemployed. What action he did take was directed at supporting and stimulating bankers, railroads, farmers, and entrepreneurs that traditionally made the economy run, to make it run again. Unfortunately his exhortations were impaired by his doctrinal beliefs about government interfering in the economy. In the perfect world that Hoover lived in, the principle of subsidiarity as he interpreted it, makes sense. However, in the real world of the Great Depression, and ever since, it’s apparent to me, that neither: individuals, families, neighborhoods, states, cities, the private sector, or non-profit charity or religious organizations, can meet the needs for: food, shelter, clothing, health care or, life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness, that many of our citizens, who are living below the poverty level have.
Hoover’s reluctance to acknowledge this reality prompted mass demonstrations in the streets of cities throughout the country. (Sounds familiar?) In addition to the tent cities previously mentioned, one of the most famous demonstrations was the so called Bonus Expeditionary Force. It drew national attention, when over twenty thousand veterans of World War I, from all over the country camped on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, demanding that congress give them an earlier payment of a bonus for wartime service, due to them by law, but not until 1945. Congress refused to grant an early bonus to the veterans. The Hoover administration ordered the army to clear the camp with cavalry, infantry and tanks. Even though the veterans and their families didn’t resist, they fled as their shacks were burned behind them. So much for peaceful demonstrations!
It was only during the Roosevelt Administration that legislation offered some immediate assistance to the millions of folks who were suffering the most from Government not recognizing that Charity was no longer able to meet all the needs of the poor and that the government needed to be more responsible than relying on “the free market”. At the peak of the Depression, it’s estimated that 35-40% of the workforce was unemployed.
Unfortunately, 82 years after the start of the Great Depression, the Republicans still claim to be the party of free market economy capitalism, and don’t have the intrinsic distrust of markets that the Democrats do. As a result we find ourselves in a situation where one party favors strategies that believe that the government needs to protect and reward the 1% of population that are billionaires and millionaires, and hope that the 1%’s financial rewards will trickle down to the poor and middle class; or that churches and other charitable organization will be able to take care of the disadvantaged. In reality, the 99% which makes up the middle class is shrinking, and while the rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer. It should be no surprise that we have the same kind of economic problems now, but worse; the same kind of demonstrations now, only more widely spread by the OWS movement, as we had when Hoover was president.
Eight decades later, we are still expecting the private sector to do what the government should be doing. I’m not suggesting that the humanitarian work that churches and other charities provide for the victims of disasters, or that their donations to organizations are not important; but we are no longer living in a rural or industrial society, where economic problems were not as complex or devastating as they are today. It’s time we recognized this, and elected representatives that are willing not just to make speeches about inequality, but are committed to work hard to pass legislation that meets the needs of 100% of “we the people”. This is what our founding fathers laid out in the Declaration of Independence, when they courageously recognized our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”