Slaughter of the Innocents

Port Townsend, Wash.

Here it is February, the joyous celebration of the birth of Christ is over with nothing left but the bills to pay off, and somewhere around now is the traditional Slaughter of the Innocents anniversary. You know, when Herod commanded the killing off of all baby boy Jews so as to make sure the prophecy of a new messiah couldn't possibly come true?

I know when we moderns hear that story we enjoy a kind of smug certainty that things have really changed since then -- that we civilized Americans wouldn't stand for such barbarism, but I'm confused.

On the one hand I keep hearing how we are at a new height of prosperity in America, yet I know any number of people and communities across the nation who are not having that same experience.

I hear that the private sector is even initiating a new kind of status club -- The Fortune 500 of Charity. Instead of being listed for the amount of wealth amassed, they are vying to be listed for the amount of money they give away. It's becoming quite fashionable, especially since Ted Turner announced he would donate a billion dollars to the United Nations.

The nation seems to be enjoying a growing self-image of prosperity and generosity to those less fortunate.

And then there's reality.

I know a woman in her mid-twenties living down in Austin, Texas. She is a single mother who moved from a small town in Colorado for the more prosperous economy of the city. But as the time to leave Colorado neared, in between the closing out her existing janitorial business and packing boxes to move, she came down with something.

Even though she was working full time she didn't have any money to go see a doctor and decided to ride it out as though it was a really bad cold. Luckily a friend came by to see her and made her go to the emergency room where it was discovered that she had a severe case of pneumonia. Had she not gotten to the hospital when she did she would have died. As it was she nearly did die and is left now with 30 percent of her lungs dead.

She did manage to move to Austin but the recovery time for such severe pneumonia is much longer than the current social attention span. It's taken months for her to regain enough strength that she does not have to lie down for an hour after every ten minutes of activity.

At the same time she has had to subject herself to forms and lines and the rejection of the system. Although she is permanently physically handicapped, the federal government doesn't recognize her as such. She cannot get any medical aid.

Not long before she left Colorado she had managed a good deal on a new car for payments that were too reasonable to pass up. Now the government penalizes her for having such a "high-value" car (as if anyone can live without transportation outside San Francisco, New York and a few other choice locations).

Because her father helps her with the rent, she has been disqualified from food stamps. And she still needs to have 30 percent of her lung removed because as it is dead tissue; if any infection gets started in there her body would have no way of knowing to fight it off.

This is not a back-ache from sleeping wrong in a drunken stupor, but that is how the government is treating it.

I know another woman here in Washington who is busy raising four children. Her first husband ran out on her and their three kids. Who knows where he is? Her fourth child is nine years younger than the rest, but her father is no longer in the picture either. The oldest boy is 17 and has fallen in with the wrongest crowd he could find.

This puts my friend in the unenviable position of not only having to subject herself to the welfare system (where it is, I believe, a law that they treat you as if you were a thief), but also having to run the gauntlet of the judicial system for juvenile delinquents. So she also gets to prove and reprove that she is not a negligent and/or lousy mom to boot.

On top of all this fun, as of March she will have to prove that she is actively looking for work 30 hours a week. Not just looking for work a lot, but documenting it. Now, what kind of documentation is an authority that already thinks you are a criminal going to accept? Not to mention what is she supposed to do with her 3-year-old daughter during those 30 hours a week? Oh, and this is a tourist town with a four-block-long main street and Tourist Season doesn't open till about May.

See, when the system penalizes you for having reliable transportation, sees you as a rip-off artist at best and the lowest common denominator of dead-beat just because you're going through a hard time, I have trouble with that. Sure, 20/20 can make an exposé on welfare cheats for sweeps weeks, but that doesn't make everyone needing humanitarian aide a scum.

So this is what I don't understand: America is all proud of itself for being so helpful, yet (apparently) it wants Congress to make sure one pot-licker in ten doesn't get a chance to rip 'em off. What about the other eight or nine families (or individuals) that are having to pay for crimes they haven't and don't want to commit?

When we hear the story of Herod committing mass murder of Jewish baby boys, we just think how different that is from what we are doing to the poor in this country. Newt, the Republicans, the media -- somebody has convinced everyone that people in need these days are criminals, but even real criminals have better representation in today's system than people down on their luck or living in hard economic areas.

So Newt and Congress are out to massacre the baby Jesus in the form of starving American families instead of risking feeding a few folks who could go out and get work.

I guess eating is not an inalienable human right after all.

Funny, since America gets such a charge out of seeing itself as the human rights leader of the world. Just don't ask about Herod, and definitely don't ask about our own poor.

It's so much easier to blame 'em than listen to them or help them. Kind of like kids that way.

Delia A. Yeager is a writer in Port Townsend, Wash.

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