By Brian Rusche
The legislature and the Governor are locked in impasse, largely because it is difficult to find compromise unless transcendent values are held in common.
I’d like to suggest one value that liberals and conservative share: the human dignity of every person. Consider the human dignity of Freddy, working all of his adult life, primarily in factory jobs – until he developed glaucoma. He lost 35% of his eyesight, is unable to work and must turn to the state’s General Assistance program for $203 a month, while the two-year process of determining his eligibility for federal disability support moves through the system.
Or consider Angie has gone through intensive therapy for disabilities caused by anti-psychotic medication used to treat her mother before doctors realized she was pregnant. Angie is an adult now and able to walk and talk, but still suffers seizures and developmental delays. She is also the mother of three-year old twins, whom she raises thanks to support services. Angie and her children live on a combination of her disability income and their state assistance that totals less than $14,000 a year.
Gregg is the CEO of a major Minnesota corporation. He lives a very dignified life. He earned $25.2 million last year, which works out to be about $203 every minute of the workday and places his household at about 100 times the federal poverty guideline.
Guess whose human dignity is put into peril to solve our state’s $5 billion deficit? Freddy’s and Angie’s. Why the poorest and the sickest? Why are they the ones to solve a shortfall caused by an economic downturn and past tax cuts that leave our state short of revenue?
Because the predicament of Freddy’s and Angie’s lives is not well known. On a recent radio interview, one legislative leader said he didn’t know much about the state’s general assistance program, the state’s key strategy for insuring human dignity for disabled adults.
The legislature proposes eliminating General Assistance for adults who are unemployable because of disability or incapacitating illness. Instead counties would be left to decide whether to provide any assistance to these adults with block grants that total $20 million less than the state currently invests.
The legislature has also unveiled a proposal to cut assistance to very poor families with disabled parents by $50 a month. The assistance those families currently receive is just enough to reach the poverty line. In most cases, the parent is disabled — so severely disabled that the federal government has designated him or her unemployable. Because that parent receives federal disability support of less than $700 month, she doesn’t receive any state assistance. But her children do: they are the ones who are asked to give up the $50 a month.
So why do we have to resort to pushing more people, especially those with disabilities, into homelessness and deep poverty? Why can’t lawmakers compromise a bit and ask people like CEO Gregg, and, indeed, most of us, to fix this budget shortfall. Doesn’t human dignity play a role in giving taxes a second look?
The protection of human dignity may be the very thing to bring about compromise. There may be disagreements about the wisdom of tax hikes and the virtue of reallocating spending reductions, and the need for reform and efficiencies, but we should all agree that fellow human beings should not be cast out of our care. We challenge the Governor and the Legislature to compromise. Not to agree with the other’s stance, but to agree to a transcendent value that guides the way we govern in Minnesota – a commitment to human dignity so that Freddy and Angie may safely live.
Brian Rusche is the Executive Director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, a statewide, interfaith public policy group, sponsored by Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic organizations.