"One Thing I've Learned: We're All Vulnerable."

You want another reason I hate presidential campaign season? It obscures real problems, the very problems the election is about. Okay, so that’s the same gripe I had yesterday. So let me introduce you to someone who's not just griping, but is doing something about it. 

Harold Pollack is a health policy analyst who, despite his terrifyingly smart and accomplished credentials, has an extraordinary ability to see social policy the way ordinary humans do: as a series of needlessly frustrating encounters with indifferent bureaucratic machinery. Over and over, he tells the stories of how ordinary human beings of limited abilities or limited means get dropped by the systems our society set up to help them. His stories have a liberal heart—in the sense that he clearly believes societies have a responsibility to help the weakest and most vulnerable—but contain no apologies for system failure. He lets the stories speak for themselves. And that is an extraordinary skill.

For quite some time, he’s told personal stories about he and his wife’s long-term efforts to care for her developmentally disabled brother, Vincent, tangled up with public systems that had previously remained abstract. The stories are stark and painful at times. His most recent story is about a young woman and her toddler, forced into homelessness

A few days ago, Jessica and her mom had a bad falling out, and her mom kicked her out. Chicago's finest drove Jessica and her toddler to the station, and suggested that she call 311. Someone dutifully arrived to drive Jessica and her toddler to a gritty nearby shelter. The driver and the shelter manager signed some forms. As far as I know, that was pretty much all the social service intervention Jessica would receive.

Jessica and her baby slept next to each other in some sort of partitioned communal space, in a shelter that includes men and women with all sorts of psychiatric and behavioral health concerns. She knew she had a bed for the night. If she attended a prayer service, she could get a nice lunch, too. Yet when I reached her by cellphone to learn the above details, she had no idea whether or what any social service professional was doing to help her. She was at a local grocery trying to find some formula with WIC coupons. No one at the shelter had provided that basic item. As far as I know, no one was doing anything for her beyond providing a bed.

Not sure what to do, I contacted the social workers in our own hospital's adolescent ob-gyn section. The person I reached, Stephanie Mistretta, happens to be a graduate of our school. Because of Stephanie, Jessica and her baby now have what they need, and are making the transition to a respected mother-only facility. Stephanie drove across town to meet with Jessica, delivering diapers and other basic supplies.  

Please read the rest of it. Yes, if you told this story to your Republican uncle, you could end up in an argument over whether Jessica should have been raised in such-and-such a way, or should have refrained from getting pregnant either via abstinence or contraception, or should have been born into a family with enough money to send her to college, but unless he actually believes that she should’ve rotted in some Dickensian hell where there were no social services whatsoever, what’s horrifying is that this was an real woman who could not get effective help in an eternally Democratic city, in a country that presumably still has some commitment to care for the least at the hour of their greatest need.

When people are frustrated with government, it’s not necessarily because they’re disciples of Ayn Rand. It’s sometimes because, as Pollack wrote in another article:

Social Services and medical systems do much to alienate and beleaguer people who need help. In failing to show a human face, these systems encourage families to turn away, to use services grudgingly, to leave problems unaddressed. These systems devote much time, attention, and resources to their internal priorities and to mechanics of eligibility and reimbursement.

You could certainly argue that Jessica (and her metaphorical sisters) would be dropped even harder under a Romney administration, or conversely, that she’d be more likely to find jobs in a Republican-led world. And yet the system that dropped Jessica, and that regularly drops Vincent, and that drops some of my shirt-tail relatives in ways I will not explain (not having Harold's courage), will not necessarily get better under an Obama administration. How do we get the news media to focus on Jessica's life, and Vincent's, with the same kind of passion that it puts into the ups and downs of the campaign? What kinds of systems do we need that will reward success rather than checking off regulatory boxes? 

Meanwhile, out of his intimate understanding of what's at stake,, somehow Pollack has made a political ad—by himself, or should I say, with a a friend and former student who filmed the video, he told me via Twitter—that transcends the campaign and answers the underlying question of what, exactly, the social safety net is about. Here it is. Please share it.

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