The overlooked classism of normal hardships

Earlier this year several cities declared health emergencies because of the concerns about the flu. Flu infection rates did reach epidemic numbers, but the rationale for these health emergencies (as it is with weather emergencies) is often to make funds available and enact certain laws that only apply during emergencies (think parking bans or quarantine).

In the case of the flu the primary issue was one of income. Low-wage workers are the most likely NOT to have insurance, and thus NOT to have gotten a flu shot. Yet, because of living in a financially precarious situation, low-wage workers are most likely to go to work when they might not be well because they cannot afford to miss out on a day’s pay. Because low-wage workers may not receive other regular health care, and/or may not be able to eat well because of food insecurity or living in a food dessert low-income their flu may be more severe. And because low-wage workers are out in the work force while ill, they become vectors for the disease. A health emergency allows the city to buy vaccine and offer it free of charge to anyone who needs it. More vaccine = (theoretically) higher immunity = fewer sick people thus fewer people to spread the virus = the entire community stays well.

We can argue about whether or not the horse was out of the barn when the health emergency was declared this year. We can also argue about the safety and utility of vaccines, but that’s not actually the point of this post.

I am writing this post from home because a powerful snowstorm is in progress over New England. I do not have to go to work today because many city and school administrators all over the region still remember a storm that snuck up on us 5 years ago when many children and families did not get home from school or work for 5 or 6 HOURS after dismissal. Yet, I was able to get up and go to an open, fully staffed grocery store this morning, and I have read several posts about restaurants planning to remain open through the storm (To be fair, I have also read plenty of posts from restaurants predicting or planning to close on account of the storm).I don’t want to get on a high horse about staying off the roads, and I don’t have a soap box speech about income inequality. However, routine hardships, like bad weather, provide very clear examples of the unrelenting pressure of poverty. People working an 8 hour day may find getting home difficult, slow and unsafe. Yet, many of those people may not really have felt like they had a choice. If working today makes the difference for eating next week, or keeping the heat on, or paying the rent, a slower more treacherous commute might start to look like a reasonable trade-off. But what a terrible decision to have to make. To weigh your safety against your monetary value.There are lots (and lots) of different viewpoints to take on work and foul weather. For example, emergency services staff, military, road crews, doctors and allied health workers are all in the same boat. Though in most of those cases compensation and choice are very different. And when I see the enthusiastic trumpeting of special storm menus and treats to tempt the local diner in for a meal, I truly believe that there are many chefs and food industry staff who are just as glad to be cooking, serving, bartending come snow, locusts or apocalypse. I just don’t want to lose sight of –under my warm blankets, jigsaw puzzles, and cups of hot chocolate– the fact that on a day like today some people are choosing to risk their safety to work, because the other choice is no income, or no heat or no food for their children, or their education, etc., and that sucks. And I don’t know if that person helped me find the candles, rung me up, or is cooking at one of my favorite restaurants tonight. So today, perhaps more than any other day, have a care for those who serve you: a large tip, genuine appreciation, and friendly conversation. It goes a long way on any day, but on a day when someone made a difficult choice so you can have a latte, honor where they might be coming from while you’re sipping your treat.

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