Saturday, October 15, 2016

Chiclets, Poverty, and Policy

I spent two weeks in Mexico recently and had the opportunity to see first-hand how the socialist government of Mexico treats its disabled.  As an attorney representing the disabled for nearly 31 years, I have a perspective and foundation to look at and compare the treatment of the disabled in the United States and Mexico. 

1. They Call Him BinLaden

Mostly because of his scraggly appearance.  This man is gaunt, unshaven, and unbathed.  He walks the beaches of Mazatlán with a box of chiclets gum.  He sells the individual pieces for 5 pesos.  Under current exchange rates, each pack of two pieces of gum costs 25 cents.  The locals tell me that this man goes downtown and buys the box of gum for 35 pesos, about $1.75.  If he sells the box, he grosses 250 pesos.  But he has to keep 35 pesos for tomorrow and as far as I can tell, he doesn't sell out everyday.  He lives on $10 a day.

This man doesn't speak.  He kind of grunts, holding out the box of gum.  He doesn't walk well, stiff legged with little if any flexion of the knees.  Did I mention that he walks on the beach?  He holds the box of gum with his open right hand and takes money with his open left hand.  I never saw him make a fist or touch his palm with any of his fingertips.  I am not a doctor but I pretend to be one in court and before SSA.  I suspect that he is palsied and that it happened at birth.  So this man has struggled his entire life. 

I luxuriated on the patio of the hotel.  Bin walked by.  He spotted Maggie and I -- recognized the faces as people that always overpaid for the chiclet.  Don't get too excited, we paid 10 pesos for each piece of gum  The 50 cents means nothing to us and a lot to him.  Paint me as not proud. 

I waved Bin off.  We were in a conversation that was serious.  Bin cocked his head to the side and rubbed his abdomen with his left hand.  He was hungry.  I gestured him to come over and bought some gum.  Paint me as shamed. 

2. Mexico's Social Safety Net

I contemplated leaving this entire section blank.  There isn't one.  Bin gets nothing in terms of housing assistance.  He is homeless as far as I could tell.  He gets nothing in terms of food assistance.  I know this from speaking with locals and asking questions.  Bin survives on the sale of chiclets gum mostly to tourists, most of whom don't want to be bothered by this unkempt mess.  The social safety net does not exist for Bin and others like him. 

I understand that Mexico does have an aged pension program.  It is meager.  Everyone gets old or older but most do not get palsied at birth or disabled during life.  In the industrialized world, that happens to 5% to 10% of the population. 

3.  The United States Safety Net

If Bin lived in the US, he would get nothing.  Not a citizen and not here before August 1997.  He would get nothing.  Bill Clinton signed that into law cutting off permanent residents that did not have 40 quarters of coverage in the family unit. 

If Bin were born in the US or got citizenship, he would get SSI.  That welfare component of the Social Security Act has a federal benefit rate of $733 for an individual and $1100 for a couple.  California provides a supplement, folding the food stamps into the monthly SSI check, $156.40 per month.  Bin is homeless so in California he would get $240.40 as the supplement. 

4.  The Pros and Cons of the Policy Choices

In Mexico, Bin has to go downtown (El Centro, or the center), buy the gum, and go back to the beach to sell.  He has to plan for the 35 pesos tomorrow.  He has to interact with people to the extent able and find something to eat.  It rains a lot in Mazatlán, or at least compare to Los Angeles -- but then again everywhere gets more rain than LA.  Bin has to manage life and has to ambulate. 

But it isn't just about Bin.  It is about me ... and you.  We have to or get the opportunity to see Bin everyday while on vacation.  But for the grace of God, there goes me.  I was born into the wealth of the United States and had a physician deliver me with forceps that prevented birth brain injury.  But for the grace of God, there goes me.  I get slapped in the face with the proposition of my incredible blessing of a well-functioning mind, body, and resources.  Paint me as humbled. 

In the US, we would give Bin SSI benefits.  When his parents died, retired, or became disabled, we would give him benefits on his parents' earnings record.  SSI would give him Medi-Cal or Medicaid.  The disabled adult child would get Medicare. 

Bin would not have to go to El Centro.  He would not have to hobble through the Playa (beach).  He would not have to sell chiclets to get something to eat.  Bin would not have to get the physical exercise and would not have to interact with people in order to survive.  And that would be my loss.  I would not have the reminder that but for the grace of God there goes me.  I would not have the reminder of the blessing of being born in the US.  I would not have the reminder that this well-functioning mind, body, and access to resources arise from nothing that I did.  They are gifts of happenstance; I was born here.  But that is what we do to the disabled in the US.  We give them enough money to stay home -- to stay out of sight.  We can't be bothered with the messiness of the disabled and disfigured.  Paint me as cursed. 

5.  The Choice

Under the guise of largesse, do we shutter away the aged and disabled so we don't have the guilt of not doing more?  Under the guise of indifference, do we force the Bins of our own little corner of the world to struggle mightily just to eat enough to barely survive and claim -- the exercise is good for him.  Is there another solution, a middle ground? 

Part of the problem rests on the proposition that in the micro, I can use compassion and discernment to pick the Bins.  In the macro, I use sterile standards to pick and choose.  The people that effectuate policy bring their own bag of bias with them.  And then there is fraud and waste.  I have no solution, just observations based on a short vacation in Mexico and a deep desire to understand the human condition. 


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  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post (and for your work in general). As an aside, in California, Bin could qualify for Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI) benefits despite not qualifying for SSI. Same rate as SSI, so as a Californian (or Angeleno at least), he'd still struggle with market rents, but it would help make chiclet sales optional.