The Cold Equations

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Gas prices, it has been shown, are not by any means extraordinary given the times and the rather slow climb in price up until recently. My experience of this price climb probably parallels that of most of you. It is most painful at the gas station and in the monthly budgeting. But once you cut the grocery bill and the clothing and a bit of slack here and there, it can be picked up. You might have noticed a spike in food prices and in the prices of goods whose delivery depends upon the price of fuel.

The price of fuel has meant economies, mostly not terribly painful, in my own house. What about those households in which there is no slack whatever? I think about a woman I know who lives as a single mother with a somewhat troubled child. She works as a waitress in a local restaurant and before the surge in prices wasn't quite keeping it together in terms of finances. A dollar stretches only so far--an the painful reality is that things that are really necessary must eventually be given up. Perhaps one does without electricity for a while as one scrapes together the money to pay off the amount due. Perhaps one's diet is trimmed just a little bit more. I don't know what measures are taken in such situations--I don't live there. What I do know are the deepening lines on the faces of people who live in these situations.

What then are we called to do in the face of the trials that are daily part of the lives of the people who have to face these price increases? We all shoulder, each one, his or her own part of the burden. And there is a legitimacy to this burden that goes beyond profit into the realm of the need to preserve, conserve, and find alternatives for our dependency.

No matter what argument might be made in support of the present situation, the impact, as usual falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor. Those who were able to live in a home, however briefly, now find themselves living out of their cars once again.

Surely it is not so extreme as that? I've seen no reports on the impact, I cannot say what is happening nationally. All I can report are the burdens of those I know personally, the stories that come to me daily from a variety of sources. Since the poor are invisible to most of us anyway, there is a tendency to remain ignorant of the impact of these things. I become profoundly concerned when the attempt to understand the mathematical reality of a situation becomes divorced from the human impact of it.

I have no solution to this perceived problem except, perhaps, that whenever anyone advances any arguments justifying "things as they are" we keep before our eyes the faces of those who are most affected by the way things are.

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One thing to remind people, especially those who are scraping by as it was: Don't carry credit card balances! I don't know how many people we know who are reasonable and intelligent people otherwise, that carry (large?) balances on their credit cards. There is another thing that hits the poor harder, because they think they are living wealth, whereas in reality they are just digging themselves deeper into debt.

Dear Brandon,

You are so right! And yet. . .

How do you say that to a parent whose choice is to use a credit card or to see his or her sick child not given medical treatment?

How do you say that when the choice is between food for the week or electricity?

How do you say that when the health of the person is on the line?

You are absolutely correct, it only digs a deeper hole, and yet, in desperation, there may seem no other way. It's a bad enough trap for those of us with means, but for those who have little or nothing, it must be an overwhelming temptation. I think of families I know whose main providers have been out of work for some period, so there is no insurance and no possibility, at this time of Medicaid, etc.

It's so hard when what you say and know to be absolutely true does look like the only way to handle things--that's a really harsh reality, and it is to those situations that I speak most.

Credit is a dangerous, even deadly way of finding your way out of a crisis; however, in extremis it may seem like the only way.

Part of our problem is that we have come to rely too heavily upon the government to care for those in dire straits. As a result the care has become more impersonal, less direct. We can like Scrooge ask, "Are the workhouses, are they still in operation?" The situation has been with us since the time of Jesus, and it seems that while the situation is somewhat better, it is not as good as it should be in a nation as wealthy as our own. Admittedly, it is probably better to be poor in the United States than to be moderately well-off in most of the rest of the world. That doesn't mean that it is good to poor, and it doesn't absolve me of the personal responsibility I have toward the care and provision for the poor. That there is a government "safety-net" is all well and good; howver, I wonder if it hasn't made us somewhat complacent with regards to the difficulties of poverty.

Thank you for your very wise words. Because I need to say, despite my anguished quibbles, you are absolutely correct.



Well, yes, all of these choices press in on all sides. However, if the issue is borrowing money from someone (because you will need to repay those credit card bills eventually), you are much better off borrowing from the hospital or from the electric company (in the form of not paying the bills on time). I've seen hospital bills that for whatever reason weren't being filed properly with the insurance, and they kept sending it to us month after month, and there was very little (if any) service charge or late fee. Every month, we could call and say that they were supposed to be filing with the insurance, and every month they would say they were and the next month we'd get a bill again. This went on for some time, and never got nasty. The electric company, at least during heating seasons, can not turn off service, and their late charges for bills that you don't pay right away aren't so bad either. So, if you really think that you just need a month or two to get the money together, those are the much better options of borrowing.

Dear Brandon,

You're probably right about the hospital; however, the electric company varies by state. I know because in the middle of July I knew a person whose electricity was cut off because the person was late by one week (bank error in transfer, not really late). They charged the equivalent of two months high-rate (about $400.00) and $40.00 "llne restore" fee. I don't know what happened with the 400.00, whether it was kept as deposit or somehow went into paying future bills. But here they can cut power any time because it's not cold enough to be dangerous in the winter (we never run the heat) and for some reason air conditioning is not regarded with the same seriousness as heating--although I read somewhere that heat was a larger cause of fatalities.

But my examples were simply "fer instances" and one can come up with others. The woman, for example, that we had to lend money to so that she could buy her daughter's insulin. The choices made may be life-threatening, and I can't imagine anyone being able to avoid using a credit card when the choice is between getting needed medicine or food and not using the card and forgoing both.

The theory is sound. You'll note I never questioned it. But it is the practice that becomes very dicey. You are correct, it is an exigency to be avoided as well as one may; however, that may not be so well depending upon circumstances. And again, I'm talking anecdotally. But that's where the real edge is--the edge of poverty isn't in the numbers it's in the faces of the mothers who have to make these choices every day.

Naturally, it is our responsibility to point the way to pantries and food banks and to help as our own resources allow. But one can't help everyone alone, and some people one does not come into contact with to tell them about the help available.

So once again. You're correct. And yes, you will have to pay back the cards eventually--but I don't think that's the thing uppermost in th mind when one's child is running a 104 degree temp because of a raging infection and the medicine to deal with it costs $200 or more. (Remember that many in this predicament don't have health insurance to defray the cost either.)

I've gone on too long--but you get the drift. The priciple is sound. Better than sound, absolutely solid. But there are times when one is not thinking in principles. And I have to be honest--if it came to Samuel's life or running up a debt I'd have to deal with later--I'd choose the latter. As I think many people do. It's up to us to try to assure that it doesn't come to that choice.



The tag "war for oil" has become a shibboleth on the left - a phrase of extreme horror - and yet, ironically, it is the poor (whom the Left say they care for) who suffer disproportionately when oil prices go up.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 5, 2006 9:18 AM.

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