If you’re successful and well-off, it’s comforting to believe that the world is fair and we each get what we deserve. But life isn’t that simple. I’ve met many people who worked hard all their lives only to have some tragedy leave them in poverty.
I will never forget the first day I volunteered at Open Door. When I called his name, a man hobbled to my desk, leaning heavily on his cane. I asked the customary questions to verify he qualified for food assistance and then I said, “I noticed you have difficulty walking. Would you care to tell me about that?”
He replied that when he woke up on the morning in question, everything was great. He had a wife, two kids, a nice home and a good job. That day he repaired a rooftop chiller on a local store. When he finished, he started to climb down the ladder. He missed the first rung and fell 20 feet. He landed on his back, and when he awoke he was paralyzed. He spent the next year in the hospital and had 13 surgeries. Workers’ compensation paid his medical expenses, but he lost his job and eventually even lost his home.
This was years later, and he had a place to live but obviously was no longer able to work. Since that day, I’ve met hundreds of people who have worked until an accident, disease or advancing age made them unable to work. Without Social Security and Medicare, many of them would be destitute and homeless.
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When I review my own life, I know I’ve been very fortunate. When I was struck by a falling beam, I could have been killed or permanently injured, but it glanced off my hard hat and only knocked me unconscious. Since I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor and chemotherapy have kept me alive and healthy. And as the bills have come for my chemotherapy, I’ve been fortunate to have insurance, because the cost would bankrupt almost anyone without it. Finally, if I had been laid off or changed jobs (and insurers), until recently my “pre-existing condition” would not have been covered by any insurance policy anywhere.
Social Security, Medicare and other safety-net programs are very important to millions of Americans who worked hard and now depend on them for survival. I know Congress must revise these programs to make them affordable, sustainable and more efficient, but I hope lawmakers also recognize how important they are and preserve their value for the many people in our country who depend on them.