by Mary Pitt
This is an invitation for all of you Washington D.C. officials who are serving as representatives of "the people" in the revered halls of our National Capital. It appears from the Congressional schedule that you intend to have ample time to spend "at home" in your respective states and districts, and so we invite you to engage in a strange adventure which may be a new and exciting experience for most of you.
We would ask you to have your well-paid office staffs do some research to prepare yourself for one of your vacations, er, fact-finding missions "at home." Tell them to research the poorest neighborhoods in your district and design a "walking tour map" that can be accomplished in a specific number of days. Then you will want to assign whatever number makes you comfortable to accompany you on this real-life adventure. Instruct them that you want to go to the places that you normally drive by without looking, you know -- the areas in which you would not be comfortable walking alone at night.
We ask that you schedule several days during your next visit "home" to spend your time, not at the local watering-hole where you usually go to shake the hands and slap the backs of your supporters who are officials in the political party of your designations, but following the path of the map, walking through those designated "troubled areas," knocking on doors, and introducing yourself to whatever householders may answer the doors.
Then you will ask their permission to enter their homes and talk to them about what is really important to them and what they would ask you, as their representative, to accomplish for them from your Washington office. First, you may possibly gain some new supporters since people are more likely to vote for a person whom they have met and liked and whom, they believe, is familiar with their lives and needs. For most, seeing your picture and reading your political propaganda is simply not enough to propel them out the door and to the polling place on election day.
You must, however, be cautioned to hang on tight to your preconceptions about the people you will meet. They are not the whining beggars that are verbally portrayed in the political oratory nor do they ask for the moon. You will find that they are the basis of the courage and perseverance that made our nation possible; the same kind of people who trekked over mountains and across raging rivers as they traversed from coast to coast and made this country the beacon for the world. They are accustomed to hard times and ask only for an opportunity to better their lives. Most would ask only for a little bit more help, but none will request a life of leisure.
Ask them about their budgets, the source of their income and the way it is spent. They will tell you. You see, they have been periodically exposing all this information to those who become quite intimate in their questioning in order to find a hidden reason for denying whatever public benefit the applicant desires and deserves. These conversations are held in public rooms in earshot of any who care to listen to the juicy details of their home lives and their expenditures. Poverty is humbling and pride will only hamper their efforts at existence.
Your reward for undergoing this project will be the education that you will take away with you. When you are debating the domestic issues of the floor, you will have a real concept of their impact on the people with whose quality of life you have been charged.
When you must vote on increases or decreases in Social Security or welfare, you will know the impact of your decision on the life of someone you know. When you know the people in your district, you will think of the elders whom you have met who could not survive without food stamps or welfare to supplement their monthly stipend. You will think of the "sickly" child who will not receive medical care for its many ailments, or the mentally-challenged young man who has, at last, learned to do his own shopping but needs new shoes which he has not been able to obtain from his SSI check.
In discussing the adjustments to the Social Security system, you will have spoken to a few widowed ladies who are actually living on an income of $1,000 a month. That amount may be a surprise to you since the records show that they receive, perhaps, two or three hundred dollars more. Then you will learn that, for two years, they have received no Cost Of Living Allowance because "their cost of living has not gone up."
However, although their basic allowance has remained the same, the Medicare supplemental deductions have risen, leaving them with still less for their living expenses. You will hear that the utilities that are necessary to keep their modest homes comfortable are still spiraling, particularly since the last two winters have been extraordinarily cold. You will learn how very little there is left for food and clothing after housing expenses and health costs are covered. You will then know that the most feared words in their lexicon are "deductibles" and "co-payments." To them, they are signals forecasting even more deprivation than they already suffer.
You will speak to single mothers, and even single fathers, who are doing their best to keep their children fed and to rear them to be responsible adults when the only sitters they can afford are the teenagers who are already roaming the streets and using the smaller children as pawns in their "games." You will hear about the difficulty of maintaining a job with an old broken-down car and/or the lack of readily-available public transportation. Again, the problem of medically-necessary health care will rear its ugly head.
You may have begun your door-to-door adventure with great misgivings and, perhaps, occasionally with an uncomfortable feeling in your nose. But if you are a real human being, that will disappear shortly after you have begun your first interview. You will find that these people are real! You will see that the basic instinct that is common to all of them is that which motivates all but the most heartless and acquisitive among us -- the desire to continue -- to make their lives count for something. For many, it is the wish to make the world a better place by the investment of their lives in their children and the quality of adults that those children may become.
You see, you have been sent to your current exalted position to represent ALL the people in your district, not just your fund-raisers and your party regulars who are so proud to shake your hand or to gain your ear. You also must represent the people whom you avoid in their natural habitat. They have problems, now more than ever, and they need the kind of help that only you and your colleagues can provide for them. Perhaps, you may want to read that part of Leviticus that instructs a man not to harvest his own crops completely but to leave some for the gleaners as sustenance for the poor.
We prefer to think that you are guilty not of neglect but of ignorance. It is easy to forget that there is a real life on the other side of the boundary between the haves and the have-nots. The truly privileged may be forgiven for their ignorance but not a person who presumes to speak for all the people. Your ignorance is willful and a symbol of your uncaring. It is easy to forget your history when breathing the heady air from the Potomac, but there is a real world out here. And that real world is your responsibility.
Therefore, you are issued this invitation. We invite you. And, if you find yourself reluctant to comply, we dare you to accept.
This writer is eighty years old and has spent a half century working with handicapped and deprived people and advocating on their behalf while caring for her own working-class family. She spends her "Sunset Years" in writing and struggling with The System.