Friday, February 15, 2008

Luck Should Have Nothing to Do With It

I live a privileged life. Hubby and I make good salaries, and enjoy the benefits that this brings. This blog, after all, was originally intended to be a place to tell stories from a four month trip around Asia and the Pacific that we took, which I am fully aware is not something everyone can afford to do (although it is not as expensive as you might think). We have gotten to this state through a combination of hard work, good decisions, and luck. Yes, luck. I have had a lot of good luck in my life.

Obviously, I have not always made as much money as I do now. When I was in graduate school, my stipend would have worked out to a little bit better than minimum wage, assuming a 40 hour work week. Of course, I was in graduate school, so my "work week" was much more than 40 hours. I remember reading a story about the gap between the official poverty level and a true living wage, and noticing that my stipend was roughly equal to the poverty level for a family of four. I remember thinking two things when I noticed that: (1) How in the world would someone support a family of four on what I make? and (2) Boy, am I glad that I won't be making this small amount of money forever, because it sure would be nice to finish a month and not have my bank balance hovering near zero.

That second thought describes one way in which my graduate school situation was different from that of many people who find themselves living on such a small salary- my circumstances were temporary, and I expected that I would be able to get a better paying job once I finished graduate school. (That this turned out to be true was one of the instances where luck played a big role in my life. I happened to leave graduate school at a particularly good time for finding a job in my field. Had I graduated two years later, things would have been very different.) Delayed gratification is very different from no foreseeable prospect of gratification.

There is another, more important way in which my graduate school situation was different from than that of most people making the same amount of money. I had excellent benefits. I had the best health insurance I have ever had as an adult. I could go see any doctor at the hospital/clinic associated with my graduate program. For free. I had a very small co-pay for prescriptions, and was never told that a drug my doctor prescribed wasn't on the insurance formulary. I also had paid sick leave- since I was technically studying, rather than working, I could call in sick to lab whenever I needed. Neither of these things are true for most people working actual minimum-wage jobs, which means that even a relatively minor medical emergency or a illness that keeps them home from work for more than a day or two can be catastrophic. I remember the buffer I had in my finances during graduate school, and I know that it would not have been sufficient to cover such a thing, and I was only supporting myself.

You only have to go and read some of the requests for help at ModestNeeds.org to see how many people find themselves teetering on the brink of financial disaster due to some bad luck with their health, or the health of someone they love. For the most part, these are people with jobs, but whose jobs offer no health insurance or insurance that is too expensive or inadequate to be a reasonable choice. Go read this post, a guest post from Kyla at MOMocrats for a more detailed story of someone who is caught in the insanity that is our current health insurance system.

I haven't really blogged about politics, and I don't intend to start. Others do it better than I would. However, this is an issue that I really think should transcend politics. Access to health care without bankrupting your family should not be a matter of luck. I lean to the left, so I tend to think that some sort of government-mandated universal health care is the answer, but I'm open minded, and am willing to consider any plan to get to the same goal via private enterprise that someone cares to offer. Just don't try to tell me that this isn't important. Too many people are crossing their fingers and hoping for good luck, when luck should have nothing to do with it.

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