There isn’t much that we can write about how this pandemic operates. Either people understand what we’re up against and the necessity of social distancing, or they don’t. We need more tests.
Right now, the focus is on helping the most financially vulnerable people in this crisis. There is a part of this group that I know quite a bit about. They are the people who experience dysfunctional lifestyle patterns due to atypical neurological functioning. You probably know them as the “mentally ill.”
For people who fight the battle against depression, anxiety, addiction, ADHD and a many other conditions that disrupt daily activity and functioning, the prevailing and ongoing goal is to work our way back to “normal.” We spend hours in therapy and training to build coping mechanisms and habits that will allow us to participate in mainstream society: holding a job, paying our bills, maintaining and cultivating healthy relationships, fighting and controlling impulses that could land us in jail or the hospital or the grave.
This is our battle.
We know that there are no gold medals. We accept that often it takes twice the effort to move half the distance as other people. We have learned not to judge ourselves by the people zipping past, but to remember that we are lugging a heavy suitcase on that same journey. Our goal in life is not to keep up with others, it is to lighten that load that slows us down. In the secret fantasies of anyone who has dealt with mental disease, somewhere there is a wish to get to “normal.”
This week, normal went away even for the healthiest and most prepared of us. And in the weeks to come, we are going to truly discover who the most vulnerable in this society are. Please know, that some of the most vulnerable have been up to this point hidden. They are about to be very exposed. They are the ones who are trying to make their way back. Mental illness isn’t just a mental illness. It is an employment illness. It is a financial illness. It is a legal illness. It is a relationship illness.
Unfortunately, for many in this country making your way back requires the first step of “going off the books.” Back taxes, owed student loans, medical bills in collections and a myriad of other obligations that were missed in previous mental episodes mean that working “legitimately” isn’t possible. Tax refunds are held. Wages are garnished. To make ends meet, those in recovery often work in cash jobs or unclaimed income.
The construction crews, kitchen staffs and odd-job workers are often people working their way back for whatever reason — addiction, major depressive episodes, mental breakdowns or just a series of bad breaks. They’re trying to make ends meet, while gathering the resources they need to take care of these past debts and fully participate in society.
Also, many of us need to stay off the books because there is a strange middle ground in healthcare. It is that space where you aren’t poor enough to qualify for benefits, but you’re not making enough money to afford insurance on the exchange — that income level where rent and insurance are more than you make. People in this zone have two options: go without insurance and pay the penalty, or keep their stated income low enough to get the very necessary medical help they need on their way back.
In the conversation about expanding unemployment benefits and providing federal stimulus, we must remember that some people who need it the most will not qualify. Unemployment is based upon your last four quarters of work as demonstrated by taxable withholdings. Now we have learned that the 2020 stimulus checks will be determined by 2018 and 2019 tax returns. Those who have a limited tax liability will receive only $600. Those who earned and filed less than $2,500 dollars in taxable income will receive nothing.
Many of the working poor, the people who pay rent and go to work every day, don’t have the best tax records. Most servers I know, if they even claim tips, tend to claim enough tips to hit the federal minimum wage. People doing odd jobs and construction work live in a cash society, often forgoing traditional banking and using prepaid credit cards. These behaviors put us at risk. But often, they are necessary to accumulate enough capital to rebuild the basic building blocks of life. It takes money to hire the services of the accountants and lawyers needed to get back on the path of being functional citizens. Many of you just finished your taxes, and many know the pain of tracking down needed numbers and documents from just last year. Imagine coming out of five years of manic and depressed behavior or addiction and needing your tax documents from six years ago.
It takes time and professional help. And before you point fingers, and say, “Well that’s what you get for not paying your fair share!” consider this fun fact from the Brookings Institute’s analysis of the IRS’s most recent tax gap report published in 2016. The rate of income misreporting is significantly higher for income from sole proprietorships and farms, and it is likely higher for high-income households than lower-income households. The top 1% of income accounts for 61% of misreporting. The lower 50% of income accounts for only 14% of misreporting.
The tax avoidance of the wealthiest combined with the legal, tax-avoiding strategies of our largest corporations, dwarf, by an order of magnitude, the amount of tax not being paid by our most vulnerable and working poor. Those working themselves back are often doing it day by day. Some days you fail. But you wake up, grit your teeth, and figure out something you can do today. Those who have a long history of mental disease also have a long list of skills and experience, because they have had to do all sorts of jobs just to survive.
But those people, working their way back, need that next day. And right now, that next day is disappearing. There is less “off the books” work to be had. There are fewer chances to work your contacts and find opportunities when the world is maintaining social distance. There are people living month to month, and they’re going to begin to have trouble next month. There are people living week to week, and their trouble is going to begin any day now. There are people living day to day, and their time is here.
Who they are may surprise you. They seem to be fine. They have a place to live. Some of them even have a car, a decent phone, decent clothes and shoes. They seem just like the rest of us. That’s because every day, we are waking up and trying, to varying degrees of success, to be like everyone else. A part of “normal.” But when normal goes away, we don’t know where to go.
Love to all my friends who live in the land in between. We will make it.
We always do. •
J.P. Lebangood has been a writer, voice and film actor, line cook, comedian, hot dog vendor and anything else that pays (almost).