While I was waiting for a flight out of Salt Lake City, a young man, waiting for the same flight, sat down next to me and initiated a conversation. I soon found out that “Theo” was headed to meet his mom, whom he hadn’t seen in a while. I also learned he has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. I asked him how his disability was manifest and he said he struggled socially – which I thought was interesting because he had initiated our conversation. He said he used to have a hard time looking people in the eyes when he talked with them. He stammered a bit, almost nervous, but we had a delightful conversation. When we arrived at our destination he introduced me to his mom.
“Theo” lives in Birmingham, Ala., but his divorced parents both live in New Orleans. I asked why he lived away from his folks, and he replied, “Because that’s where I could get treatment for Asperger’s …New Orleans has nothing.” What “Theo” meant was that New Orleans didn’t have any public assistance programs to help him, whereas Birmingham did.
I could have ignored this young man. I could have judged him for seeking public assistance. Instead I was reminded of a very important lesson in the service of people in need: Conservatives can take away government programs that unintentionally create dependency, but no one can take away the human struggle through mortality. Cut Medicaid, cut Medicare, cut S-CHIP, cut every government health care program, and sick or disabled people who cannot afford medical care will still exist.
As Utah rightly looks for ways to move away from Medicaid business-as-usual, we’ll be wise to still take care of our neighbors in need. Our state Legislature seemed to be attentive to this point as it made authentic charity care a part of state health care policy last year with HJR 27. If Utah is serious about Medicaid reform, now is the time to prepare for the future. Now is the time for the state Legislature to seriously begin to create a statewide network of free clinics run by and through the private sector. (For more details, see Sutherland’s policy paper on authentic charity care.)
Similarly, we can end all of the talk about “hunger in Utah” by simply establishing a culture of regular giving of food to Utah’s food banks and pantries. Twice a year the state encourages citizens to give to food banks and pantries. But just twice a year? Is anyone really asserting that Utahns couldn’t participate in a statewide food drive each month? We can and we should, and the private sector in Utah could do this very easily.
The alternative is a continued political nightmare in which the “have-nots” and their liberal advocacy groups continue to politicize our neighbors in need. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Why not help our neighbors in need and put an end to the politics of poverty by simply asking all Utahns to step up and take care of one another without government involvement?