I was just walking the dogs through the neighborhood. No agenda, really, other than to let the dogs sniff things out. Over on the street just north of us, I saw a fellow poking around one of the houses currently under construction. I thought perhaps he was the owner and checking on how the construction was coming along.
“So what do you think?” I called out. “Are you going to buy it?”
He laughed and said, no, he was just poking around. Portia, the lab, and Flash, the mini-Aussie, sniffed his boots. He leaned over and patted them both.
“I can’t believe how much they want for these houses. When I moved here in 2006, you could get a nice place for $100,000.”
“Really?” I asked, stunned. The going price for a basic home is $300,000 now.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Where’d you move here from?” I asked.
And that was all it took. That one question. A very simple and basic question. For the next half-hour, this man who had not even told me his name, told me some of the most intimate details of his life. He alternately wept, raged, and wondered.
He was a meat cutter from the Portland area. The most money he ever made was $18 an hour. That’s what he was making when he retired. He and his wife raised four kids on that salary. In Portland. Inconceivable to me that two people could live off that salary much less six. He had three girls and a boy. The boy lives near here but not the girls.
He and his wife moved in 2006 because she had gotten breast cancer.
“I lost her last year. It’s been hard,” he said. His lips quivered as he fought back tears.
He told me that he was paying $1,400 of his $2,000 take home check to insurance. “And that was with the union’s coverage.”
They were going under, what with the $1,400 insurance payment and the co-pays for treatment. So they sold their home for a little over $200,000, which in Portland was like giving it away. And bought a home for $100,000 in Redmond. That helped them get out of the financial burden. For awhile anyway. Their insurance costs dropped to $1,000 a month. His wife went into remission. They enjoyed a few good years. Then Obamacare came along and their insurance fees dropped to $300-400 a month. That was really something. He was able to put some money aside out of his $2,000 a month pension. He and his wife could afford to eat out on occasion. Take trips to see their daughters.
But then the cancer came back. And those co-pays? They were so much more than before. It was like robbing Peter to pay Paul. In addition to worrying about his wife’s rapid decline, he had to worry about how he was going to pay for her dying.
He voted for Trump. “I really thought he was going to do something to help us,” he said. (Mind you, I never asked. I don’t ask that question of people. Especially not people whose names I don’t even know.)
“You thought we’d get better health care?” I did ask that.
“Yes,” he said. “He made all these promises.” His face flared red. The grief he felt turning to anger now.
“You think we need universal health care?”
“Yes,” he said. “We should have fixed this problem a long time ago.”
I nodded in agreement. Another neighbor walked by with her dog, one of those mixed things that look like a miniature ET with a collar. My dogs went ape-shit. Portia nearly pulled me over in an effort to go sniff ET’s butt. “This is why I can’t take you places,” I scolded. Portia is the best dog in the world but every now and again she gets a fly in her ointment and she is singularly focused on making a new friend herself. She will and has literally jerked me over in her efforts.
Once ET rounded the corner, the meat-cutter picked up his monologue again.
“Last year, when my wife was dying, my co-pay for her care was $23,000. For one year.” He shook his head, brushed the dirt with the tip of his boot. “I don’t know why I am telling you all of this.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m Karen.” I offered him my hand. He shook it and told me his name. “I lost my best friend to breast cancer. I am sorry about your wife.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s hard.”
We talked a little more, about the area, about our kids. Then we parted ways. Me mulling over the meat-cutter’s sorrowful tale. Him mulling over the price of new homes, I guess.
Paul Ryan resigned that day. I read several reports that his pension will be $79,000 a year. Three times as much as the meat cutter’s pension. Paul Ryan was in my hometown in Georgia the other day, talking to one of the town’s Fortune 500 companies. He will likely get a job as a consultant or a lobbyist once he retires. Maybe even with the very company he was talking to the other day. Paul Ryan is responsible in no small part for the tax reform that is adding trillions of dollars of debt to the US and providing a butt-load of money to the already wealthy and multi-national businesses. Paul Ryan wanted to do away with Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. Badly-named programs that Paul Ryan considered a “luxury item” for lazy poor people and the elderly and the young. By the time Paul Ryan gets to be the meat cutter’s age, he will have amassed millions. When you have millions, you don’t need Medicare or Medicaid. You certainly don’t need food stamps.
The meat cutter doesn’t yet qualify for Social Security. He has three more years to go for that “entitlement” – a misnomer for a program the meat-cutter has paid into all of his working days.
Paul Ryan and his friends in the GOP bought Health Insurance stocks as they gutted Obamacare, as the meat-cutter’s wife lay dying.
His friends say Paul Ryan is a good Christian man.
I wonder if Paul Ryan were to stand next to the meat-cutter on Judgement Day, what Jesus would have to say.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel. Mercer University Press.