Posts Tagged ‘Disability rights’

Who’s Flying Your Plane?

June 10, 2009

That’s today’s headline in the local paper. It’s about, of course, the commuter plane crash near Buffalo, a few months back, in which all passengers and crew died. The crew included two pilots with minimal experience and low pay, lousy test scores, long commutes, and almost no chance to rest between flights. Apparently many small commuter airlines have similar staffing problems. They pay their starting pilots between $16,000 and $30,000 per year. The airlines in question piously hope that publicizing this kind of information won’t make the public reluctant to fly small airlines, whose staffing is just as good as that of the rest of the industry.

Right. Just as good as Sully the Miracle Man who, during the same period, with all engines stopped by bird strikes, managed to save all passengers and crew aboard his plane by landing it in the middle of the Hudson River at rush hour in New York. He, of course, has been flying for U.S. Airways or its predecessors for nearly 30 years, plus military flying service. We don’t know his income, but we can reasonably assume it’s well into the six figures. He obviously deserves every penny of it. But an airline spokesman says there is no connection between pilot pay and flight safety. Yeah, right.

Which raises the question—most of us fly at most a couple of times a month, and more often a couple of times a year. While the professionalism of our pilots on those occasions is an essential concern, it isn’t a constant concern. Unlike, say, the question of who’s caring for your toddlers, or your parents, or your disabled family member.

According to the Service Employees International Union, the average home health care worker earns between 6 and 8 dollars an hour, rarely works a full week of 40 hours, and gets no benefits whatever. And no, these not teenagers working their way up to better things; most of them are over 45, and many are over 65. For them, this is as good as it gets. Many of them have disabilities of their own, which they cannot afford to attend to.

While a pilot is responsible for a lot more lives, s/he also shares that responsibility with a co-pilot and an engineer. Even the cheapest of the regional airlines examined by the Chicago Trib pays $78 per hour in training and salary per crew member for its flight crews, or roughly $250 per hour total. That’s well over 30 times the hourly wage of a home health care worker, who probably cares for three or four clients over a week. If one of those clients is a member of your family, are you sure this makes sense?

Let’s get back to the issue of connection between pay and safety, either in the cockpit or behind a wheelchair. The main reason workers get paid at all is to enable them to maintain, day to day, their own ability to work. If they don’t get paid enough to maintain stable housing (note that an increasing proportion of homeless people have jobs, and that one of the pilots in the crashed Colgan flight had spent the previous night on a couch in the staff lounge), that will be reflected in the quality of their work.

The other reason workers get paid, of course, is to motivate them to show up and do their jobs competently. Most economic historians have concluded that ante bellum slavery in the American South, lacking this motivation for its workers, was grossly inefficient and might well have died on its own in a few decades, had the Civil War not intervened.

Unlike the airline industry, the home health care “industry” lacks any governmental statistical oversight. So we don’t really know much about the risks to client health and safety caused by poorly trained, underpaid, overworked home health care workers. But while you’re on the ground, gentle reader, you should have time to stop worrying about whether your pilot has been properly trained, housed, and rested. Why not use that time to worry about whether the person who takes care of your mother-in-law, or your nephew, or who will someday be taking care of you, is able to do the job safely.

Red Emma

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The Other Marriage Penalty

February 8, 2008

By now we are all familiar with the “marriage penalty” in the federal income tax code, if only because getting rid of it is a major part of the President’s tax reduction program.  Most of us know that, the year after two working people get married, they will get a wedding present of a considerably higher tax bill (around $1,500.00 on average) than they paid the year before.  The original premise of this nasty provision was that two can live as cheaply as one-and-a-half.  Which is hard for many of us to accept, especially considering the large number of couples who set up housekeeping together well before (and often instead of) marriage. Whatever economies of scale there may be in sharing a household, people no longer have to be married to achieve them.  So the additional tax penalty is no longer a penalty for living cheaply, it is a penalty for doing the religiously and socially acceptable thing and getting married instead of just living together.  Most of us think it’s wrong to have to pay such a penalty, and will be glad to see it ended.   

But we are less familiar with another marriage penalty built into federal legislation–not in the tax code, but in the Social Security Act and its amendments.  The most egregious and sweeping “marriage penalty” is the one levied against recipients of SSI–Supplemental Security Income. This is the federal program for people who cannot work and have no work history behind them to qualify for Social Security retirement and disability payments.   

SSI currently covers roughly 6.5 million people.  They may be elderly people who have spent their lives working in jobs that did not pay Social Security retirement premiums–farm labor, domestic labor, work for some governmental organizations and charitable or church groups.  They may be young people who have serious disabilities and have never been able to work at all.   But (effective January 1, 2007) the Federal benefit rate is $623 for an individual and $934 for a couple. That is the most income they are allowed to receive.  Every penny they get from every other source gets taken off the SSI grant. 

Got that?  Two people with serious disabilities, who cannot expect ever to be able to support themselves, and who have to accept a life with physical limitations, have to pay $3,500.00 a year, one quarter of their total income, for the privilege of being legally married.  That’s roughly twice as much as most taxpayers pay in the IRS marriage penalty.  And, obviously, it leaves them a lot less to live on than most of those taxpayers have.  Maybe two can live as cheaply as one-and-a-half, at the middle and upper ends of the income scale.  But SSI recipients are squarely at the bottom of that scale.  Just try to imagine living alone on $600 a month.  Now try to imagine living with your spouse on $934 a month.  Try to imagine having to choose between violating the morality you were brought up with, accepting a 25% reduction in an already inadequate income, and spending an already difficult life alone.   

We don’t know, and currently have no way of finding out, how many couples on SSI have been deterred from marriage by the SSI marriage penalty.  We certainly have no way to find out how many of those have accepted unlicensed cohabitation, with or without a religious ceremony, and how many have simply had to spend their lives without the companionship the rest of us take for granted.  So we also have no way of knowing how much it would cost to end the other marriage penalty.   

By the most wildly pessimistic calculation, let us assume that all of the 6.5 million people on SSI are single people, half of them male, half female.  Then let’s assume they all marry each other. That’s 3.25 million couples getting an extra $3500 a year each, or $10.3 billion total.  Compared to the tax cuts Bush is currently trying to sell, well into the trillions, that’s peanuts. While our president and lawmakers are bragging about our surpluses and falling all over each other to give them “back” to the most fortunate of our citizens, surely we can at least spare a thought for the least fortunate and their right to “the pursuit of happiness.”  Let’s end the SSI marriage penalty now.

Jane Grey