Why do these things always seem to happen during long, hot weeks?
The summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Rochester, three friends and I rented an upstairs flat near the college, a sublet from some grad students. All of us had summer jobs on campus, and we walked or biked through the Genesee Valley Park on our way there. For part of that long, hot summer, the National Guard was stationed in that park. The actual race riot in Rochester and its violence lasted from July 24-26, 1964. What the university library calls “The Rochester Race Riot Papers” are now housed in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation.
What made me think of that summer recently is the tendency for social unrest to erupt in unthinkable ways that we hesitate to think about beforehand. But it is not only the Rochester race riots that come to mind. The aftermath of the poorly-managed Katrina disaster and the ongoing state of disruption in Haiti also are cause for reflection.
Even though withholding Social Security checks is not the same as an earthquake, flood, or race riot, it has the same potential for physical harm, unhealthy conditions, lack of appropriate nutrition, inability to support usual payments, the heaping of ruin on those least likely to be able to help themselves, and the inability of others to help in time or enough.
It brings to mind the dilemma of who exactly is supposed to support those in harm’s way, how to do so, whether there is a plan in place, whether cities, states, or the federal government will act to alleviate suffering, how they will do so, and how long it will take for help to mobilize–because Social Security isn’t just an extra for those with secure retirements. Statistics from the Social Security Administration’s inspector general report of November, 2010, show that about 40 percent of all unmarried people who receive it rely on it for at least 90 per cent of their incomes. And Social Security isn’t just for retirees. It is also for the disabled and for younger recipients who meet the requirements.
According to the University of Rochester library, there were four deaths, at least 350 injuries, over 800 arrests, and over a million dollars’ worth of property damage because of the Rochester race riots. The damage done by stopping Social Security payments may be of another sort. But picture Food Banks overtaxed with applicants, interest rates soaring, the effect on savings, and possibility of utilities turned off because payments have stopped. Will there again be horrific conditions in a hot, unsanitary building waiting for food, shelter, and buses awaiting evacuation s there were during and after the Katrina disaster? Will there be an increase in preventable illness, as in the Haiti situation?
Making a choice to stop Social Security payments even for a month will amount to a social experiment based on harms that we can actually see, understand, and plan for in advance, if only we will look. Less than a month’s preparation time for what amounts to an experiment is not right, especially when there are human subjects being conscripted without their consent. And it will bring costs that may be higher than avoiding the disaster in the first place through making a better choice.
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