A Taste of Poverty and Power

Sunday, October 18, 2015



For the past month, I have been living what feels like an epic saga from the confines of my office. There have been a growing cast of characters, scenes spread across one of the world's major cities, and a series of plot twists. But before you get too excited, here it is in a nutshell.

During this interim period before moving to Thailand, our family's very low income qualifies our daughters for Medicaid, and Christie and me for government-subsidized health insurance that costs us something like 10% of what our employer's plan would cost us. So Christie put in the extra work and signed us up. We were covered… for a couple weeks.

Everything was fine until one day a government employee accidentally entered our income information incorrectly into a system, triggering a cascade of different "holds" on our account that, long story short, barred us from our health insurance plan and left my wife and I stuck between two different government entities, unable to purchase health insurance.

Wanting to be re-insured as soon as possible, since catastrophic medical bills can be financially crippling, we immediately picked up the phone and got to work. And so began a tedious saga of phone calls that lasted for well over a month. Each new person I talked to, even the most kind and helpful people, were unable to do anything for us due to the various conflicting "holds" in the system that they could not functionally (or even legally) remove until someone in another department did something on their end. It was a run-around par excellence.

Thirty seven days into this saga, one employee – after going above and beyond to help me, but to little avail – connected me to Janae, a health consumer advocate. Janae listened to my story, took down my info and said she would write an email to somebody high up and get back to me.

Just four hours later – after 37 days of endless calls with no real progress, after talking to at least thirteen different people at a ten different phone numbers across Los Angeles county, after being directed to four different websites, and being assigned at least three different case/incident numbers – four hours after my short phone call with Janae, I got a call back from her: Email sent. Just got a fax back. You're good to go.

In disbelief, I quickly pulled up our account page on the insurance website, not wanting to let her go until I saw it with my own eyes. But sure enough, where a glaring red "ineligible" box had mocked my efforts day after day, there was a soothing green box that said "eligible." We could buy health insurance again.

"Remember This"
When the saga was finally over, my wife – a lawyer who has spent years working with people who are poor and underprivileged – said something that stuck with me: "Remember this. It's so easy to forget."

I am so grateful for her little comment. What she meant was that for people like us, born into privilege, this was a small window into the reality that many, many people face daily living in poverty. And I'm not just talking about the narrow, Western view of poverty as "needing more money." I'm talking about poverty in its fuller meaning, "being trapped by multiple-interconnected factors that prevent [people] from making meaningful choices.”1

Think about this. It took me 37 days from start to finish to sort out this problem and get us back on medical insurance.

I am fluent in English, college-educated with honors, and a details-oriented person to boot. Yet even with detailed notes from all my previous calls, I had to pause more than once to think while explaining the complexities of our situation to Janae. What if I had been an immigrant (like I will be in a few months) struggling to use the English language? What if I had been a high-school dropout not used to careful note-taking and detailed research?

What if I had worked a job (or two or three) that did not allow me the time and flexibility to pour countless hours into this unwelcome but urgent project during the 9:00 to 5:00 business hours during which these people were actually available?

Add to this that my wife and I have multiple levels of "safety nets" under us. First of all, we had the option of being insured by our employer – for much higher premiums, sure, but at least it was a way to be insured. Secondly, even if we had incurred a staggering medical bill while uninsured, at least we have the qualifications to seek out high-paying jobs, not to mention families that would be able to help us shoulder such a burden financially and relationally. But what happens when people who are barely scraping by financially get stuck in a situation like ours and then get hit with an out-of-pocket medical bill for tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars? What happens to people whose parents, far from being able to help them in a crisis, are actually depending on their children for financial support?

Empathy and Emptying
In the end, this experience left me with two impressions. Firstly, it is remarkably easy for privileged people (like myself) to fail to truly understand and empathize with those who live in poverty – or who are immigrants, or who face racial/ethnic or other prejudices that we simply never will. It's all too easy to look down on people (e.g. "just work harder!") when you've never tried to play at life with the hand they have been dealt. This insurance run-around was just a tiny, tiny taste of what it is like to feel powerless and vulnerable in the face of systems you have no real control over – even when many of the people you talk to are sincerely kind and doing their best to help you. It's called systemic injustice, and it's very hard to relate to if you spend your whole life above the unjust systems in question.

Secondly, I was reminded that power is a gift. I don't know which important person or entity Janae emailed that Wednesday morning. But I can easily imagine how, when that person suddenly received an email from Janae at the "Department of Managed Health Care" – a department which, among other things, takes legal action "to prosecute violators" – my insignificant little case quickly rose to the top of his or her priorities for the day.

It reminded me of when my wife worked as a legal intern during law school. She told me one evening after work about a woman in a wheelchair who had tried for two years to get her city officials to fix a broken (and filthy) wheelchair-accessible bathroom at a park she frequented. The woman finally contacted a disability rights law firm. A single letter, penned by my wife (just a lowly intern!) on the firm's letterhead not only got the bathroom fixed immediately, but the woman later reported that the bathroom was always very clean from that point on.

Power, when used to advocate for those who don't have it, is a very good thing.

Yet it's easy, especially for some Christians, to run away from power – perhaps out of fear of being corrupted by it, perhaps out a false sense of humility, or simply from a timid unwillingness to engage this broken world's real, thorny, difficult issues. But the truth is that these uses of power by Janae and my wife are reflections of the One who, though He rightfully had all power and privilege, did not just sit there and enjoy them, but came and "emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant"2 in order to save a people trapped in the most abject, helpless poverty of all.

1 I borrow this phrase from Steve Corbett and Brian Finkert's book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.

2 Philippians 2:7

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