Like most black children growing up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, I spent most of my life medically uninsured. If you got sick, you stayed home and endured the experimental ministering of your grandmother whose medical knowledge consisted of a spoonful of Castor Oil, two drops of sweet oil in each ear, and effectual prayer to “dah” Lord. To say the least, being sick and uninsured was not fun—and not because Castor Oil tasted like day old paint—but because it leaves you, the infirmed and uninsured, wondering if you’re healed. This is not to say that medical school is the only way you learn how to heal the human body. Clearly, I’m still alive today because of my grandmother’s medicinal concoctions and faith in God. However, having access to medical insurance can make life easier and long-lived. Just ask the countless numbers of people who discover through a doctor’s visit that they have Cancer or Diabetes and have caught it right in the nick of time.
Yes, having access to a doctor can save your life. It can also reduce the stress of having to lie, steal, kill, and cheat in order to get the medical treatments you need. I can recall the many lies my mother had to fabricate to update my sisters’ and I’s shot records and the unlawful amounts of money clinic’s doctors charged to give my older sister and me annual physicals so that we could play school sports. We could not afford to be sick. Sickness was a privilege of the wealthy (i.e. white people) and a curse for us, the working class, because sickness meant a loss of work hours, possible job termination, increased consumption of alcohol by my father because he could not pay the medical bills, bellies filled to the brim with the quintessential cure-alls—cod liver oil and castor oil—and the possibility of an unknown death. Being sick was a curse.
Because of all of this I am a huge proponent of universal health care. Therefore, I’m very upset with how President Barack Obama is handling the “government run” health care debate. Simply hosting town hall meetings and press conferences do not get at the root of why so many Americans are anti-universal health care or anti-government run health care. This issue is not simply about framing or reframing a message of why people should support government run health care as seen in the Harry and Louise’s commercials. It’s about radically altering people’s ideas about whose deserving and who’s undeserving primarily based upon this allegedly neutral idea of hard work. An idea that says, “Hey, I work hard so I receive health insurance through my job. Okay. Others don’t work hard so they don’t get health insurance and shouldn’t receive it free through the government . . . Shoot, government always trying to spend my hard earned money on lazy ass people.”
Yes, many Americans are sounding like Oscar the Grouch (Please click on the link) when it comes to extending medical coverage to the uninsured because they assume that the reasons why people are not covered is because they are not working hard enough or have made bad choices to make coverage an unlikely possibility. To see evidence of this, just randomly click through news channels reporting on the health care debate. All in all, people don’t want to sign on to Obama’s plan because in their minds they unequivocally believe they are suffering for a few lazy poor decision-making Americans . . . as if 45.7 million uninsured people were a small number of people. And of course, conservatives are profiting from blatantly touting this rhetoric in commercials and in press conferences.
But now that I think about it, perhaps, I am giving conservatives too much credit they are simply harnessing a belief system that has been hanging around since the first enactment of the 18th century Poor Laws which only provided welfare for those who could not work—young children, widows, the disabled, and non able bodied people.
If President Obama hopes to save some semblance of his government-run health care plan, he needs to do something that will literally and figuratively eject people out of their staunch individualistic beliefs. But what would it take to do that? Is it even possible? Is it possible to change people’s beliefs about whose deserving and who is undeserving when people are taught from birth that only people who “work hard” receive help? Of course, this idea of whose deserving is further complicated by the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality where often African Americans and Latino Americans are stereotyped as people who are undeserving because they are caricatured as lazy people who fleece Uncle Sam by collecting numerous welfare checks from having children by different “daddies.”
Given this notion of the deserving public and the undeserving public, it appears as if President Obama’s government run health care plan is doomed to fail. That is, unless he is able to perform a miracle of changing people’s minds. Unless he is able to show them that using an idea of “hard work” that is framed and defined by the middle and upper class to determine who “deserves” to be healthy is deeply problematic and antithetical to community building. If Obama is unable to change public opinion then he will be as Jesus was healing the uninsured sick, himself.