Monday, January 5, 2015

Hard truths and coin-operated Speed Queens

   The dryer went kaput. We ordered a new one, but the pile of laundry couldn't wait until a way-past-New Year's Eve delivery. So my bride and I ushered in 2015 at the laundromat.

   I wished Mitt Romney could have been with us, there among the people who pay a penalty every day for being poor.

   Believers in 100-proof capitalism think a whole bunch of Americans – Romney said 47 percent; many Republicans said "amen" – are miserable moochers and slackers.

   Miserable, maybe.

   I'd never thought a laundromat would reveal truth about the falsehoods that underpin blue-sky economic policies. But hard truths stared at us amid the blank eyes of the Speed Queen washers and driers.

   First, if you, like me, haven't darkened the door of a laundromat in 30 years: Guess how much a load of wash costs today?

   Way off. You're not even in the ball park. Try $2.25 a load. Drying that load will cost $1.50, or at least it did for us.  Not that we had the average-sized load; it included bedding, after all. But when we were done that afternoon those machines had gargled down $40 of our quarters.

   What a scene it is, a laundromat on New Year's Day. Young couples; older, arthritic women; children scooting around at the least desirable playground imaginable.

   "No permitir a los ninos jugar con los carritos de lavanderia," said the sign above us.

   "Don't allow kids to play in laundry carts," said its companion.

   We shuddered at the costs associated with this ritual. You could save up the required quarters from repeated washateria visits, we reasoned, and buy a washing machine in no time. But to have a washer you need more than a cramped rental. You need a home.

   Being poor comes with costs never considered by those who think a discussion of income inequality is "class warfare." (If this is a war, no such rout has occurred since Reagan the Conqueror led us into Grenada.)

   Taxes? Romney's 47 percent line played on indignation over the fact that many Americans pay no income taxes. It was parcel of a big lie. Everyone who works pays the FICA payroll tax. Throw in sales taxes, gasoline taxes and user fees, all pet instruments of conservatives.

   Those taxes are blissfully regressive, of course, especially FICA, which applies only to one's first $118,500 in earnings. To that bonbon, the stuffed capitalist says, "Thanks."

   No, Mitt, it doesn't pay to be poor in America.

   While the media tout diet plans and wellness for the New Year, the sad truth is that for many Americans wellness is a dream. Not only do the working poor commit their bodies to physical strains few of us could hack, but healthy eating habits go out the window. The whole concept of "dieting" is an effete construct in the eyes of those for whom fine dining is pre-wrapped and warmed by someone else's microwave.

   And, listen to the sage New Year's advice about staying on top of health concerns – hypertension, blood sugar and more – through regular doctor's visits. For many Americans, a routine exam is a Disney World fantasy.

   Ah, but in 2014, under the Affordable Care Act, many states saw the cost-benefit wisdom of expanding Medicaid so more working-poor individuals could do what the rest of us do: get ahead of health issues. Good for those states, and their people. Many states, however, refused -- a prerogative that none of their emergency rooms will exercise.

   Such thoughts swirled through my mind as socks chased T-shirts in one Speed Queen and blue jeans and bath towels did the do-si-do in another.

   When all tumbled to a halt, we headed back to the holiday-festooned warmth of home.

   Will I live so long as to ever again be aghast at what survival – in the form of a trip to the laundromat — costs people with meager means? That dryer of ours had better be prepared to outlive its new owner.

   Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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