Military Spending and the Mentally Ill: Why does our society harbor an anti-social attitude towards poverty and mental illness? (The Essay)

The world is growing ever more dangerous and our defense spending is wholly inadequate to confront the danger.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               Tom Cotton (R), US Senator, Arkansas


As the sun burns off the morning haze, I browse through the daily news and blogs to see what is happening around the globe. I discovered that yesterday protestors shut down the European Central Bank over austerity measures; Republican Senators overstepped Executive power and attempted to block anti-nuclear negotiations with Iran; a day before the Israeli election, Benjamin Netanyahu said there will be no two state solution for Palestine and the new conservative budget planned to cut more money from the poor because an expansion of $485 billion military budget is not enough.


The most shocking thing I read online was from Tom Cotton, Republican freshman senator from Arkansas. This quote below was circulating among several accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Alledgedly in a floor speech on March 16, 2015 he said, “We should triple the amount we spend on defense and quadruple what we spend on prisons. Why do we pay for food stamps? Welfare? Medicare? They don’t keep us safe. If anything they nurture the most dangerous elements of society.”


About 57% of the U.S. budget is already being spent on the military (not including Veteran’s Affairs) and yet less than 1% is spent on food. However, when one considers that Mr. Cotton and his ilk perhaps receive large sums of money from war profiteers and over one million from the Israeli lobbying group, Emergency Committee for Israel, his words may not be exactly what is in the social media quote but his motives are abundantly clear. Cotton made the headlines recently with an open letter to the Iranian regime warning that Congress would not approve any nuclear deal they negotiate with President Obama.

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I was recently awakened to the reality that the world is also unfolding here in my small transitional housing space in Northern New Mexico for the homeless and mentally ill. For the second time this week, an ambulance raced into the parking lot with lights and sirens. Several paramedics jumped out of the vehicle with mechanized precision. They pulled out their equipment along with a stretcher, while suddenly two police cars came to a screeching halt.


I try not to look too obviously, but I am curious. I look a few minutes later to see they are bringing the stretcher without a person. I hear a noise in the hallway. I peek out and see several police officers talking to the paramedics. I see Navajo George, coming out of his apartment. He walks toward me and says, “Peter is dead”. I must have had an unresponsive look, because he said again, “yes we found him dead sitting in his chair”. Two women from the third floor appeared and one of the women began to cry when she heard the news.


Peter was a relatively reclusive man of only thirty-seven years old. He was an Iraqi War Veteran and it was rumored he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Peter had very sad eyes and according to some he never recovered from his mother’s sudden passing and it was said that he only had a few close friends. I didn’t know him very well. According to Navajo George he was trying to get sober by going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.


Although Peter had all the markers for someone at high-risk; sudden deaths are always unexpected. Of course the first thing we want to know is if his death was preventable? Yet as the chill and stench fill the air we all gaze at our own mortality. The medical examiner remained mum, so the cause of death is undetermined until the autopsy reports are made public.  Caseworkers assured everyone that there was no foul play. And although no one has said it out loud, I have to believe that behind everyone’s mind is the question of whether his death was suicide.


Residents of this building (including myself) are all enormously vulnerable. Navajo George went back to the reservations for a few days, because in his culture he must be purified after an unnatural death. He said that all of Peter’s things would have to be burned and then the smell of death would leave in four days. I don’t think Peter’s clothes were burned, but I do understand the desire to be purified.


According to the World Health Organization, the majority of people with mental and psychosocial disabilities are living in poverty. They are often in poor physical health and are subject to more human rights violations. “People with mental and psychosocial disabilities are a vulnerable group and as a result of the way they are treated in society… they are subjected to stigma and discrimination on a daily basis. They experience very high rates of physical and sexual victimization.” (WHO Website)


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There is an obvious link between mental illness and poverty as seen in the members of the transitional house where I reside. They struggle in the staunchest way. The general health of this population is poor, brought on by years of stigma and neglect. I’m not saying anything new here but as many epidemiological studies have concluded, poverty is a form of indirect violence. In this building of thirty-four residents, I watch the continue struggle for subsistence which immensely contributes negatively to their mental well-being.


The residences in this building look to each other for support, because the system doesn’t support them adequately. All it takes is one bureaucratic error and one can be without food or general assistances. I met one such person that had his food stamps cut off for four months due to lost paperwork. I asked him what he did in this case; he said he’d go to the food pantry every two weeks as allotted. He said that most of the food is expired or spoiled, but at least it is “something until times get better”.


It was only a few months ago that I was in the darkness and wasn’t sure that I would survive another day. I think most people in this building have experienced this darkness in some way. Our stories are ones of infinite resiliencies. Yet we have no delusions. We have higher rates of mortality then most but as with poverty it is something we learn to accept, because we can’t buy a U.S. Senator to speak for us.




Speak Up… for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all that are destitute. 

Proverbs: 31:8


Attacking the poor and disabled is nothing new. Although there is no evidence to support such claims, right-wing media and politicians have created the myth that social programs that help the poor, elderly and disabled are plagued with fraud. As Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) argues, people are “gaming the system”. Fox News contributor and neocon Charles Payne suggests that disability recipients are collecting checks under false pretenses. He referred to the program offensively as “the crazy check”, suggesting that people only pretend to have mental disabilities to receive a check. He doesn’t mention that guidelines for eligibility are very strict and according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, less than .4% of beneficiaries are likely receiving bogus payments.  I wonder then, how does this compare to the fraud found in military contracts?


In an action of class war, in their first days in power the 2015 House came up with a rule that would prevent routine reallocation to the Social Security Trust Fund. Scheme for this is to slash the Disability Fund. Under this new rule the Disability Fund will dry up in 2016 unless it cuts the benefits of 11 million Americans by 20%. This is an affront to working people who have paid into the trust.  This long-term strategy to privatize Social Security and offer more tax breaks to millionaires and corporations is another step toward breaking the poor and middle-class.


Meanwhile as a “dangerous element of society” my therapist and psychiatrist advised me to apply for Social Security Disability and insisting that my mental health become my full-time job. If anyone knows how this process works, they know that it can take several years before receiving any benefits and during the application process, one isn’t allowed to work even part-time or they are quickly denied. This forces many people into a more extreme circumstance of poverty. In my own situation I wouldn’t have considered stepping into this “bureaucratic iron cage” and imposed poverty if it wasn’t for my most recent psychotic break.


After six months of waiting, I just received a date for a psychological evaluation from someone outsourced by Social Security. This begins the initial course for determination. I commonly hear that I should expect to be declined initially because almost everyone is. One of my cohorts down the hall in the transitional house, called this “a system of discouragement” and that most people don’t endure the long appeals process. Some applicants hire specialized attorneys, but I have received mixed reviews whether it is helpful or not. Essentially, they file all the paper work and take a portion of the settlement.  However a resident who lives on the floor above me, hired an attorney and was recently approved for SSDI after five years of appeals.


While in the process of waiting for Social Security, I am living off $195 in monthly food stamps and $245/month in general assistance. The general assistance goes to pay for HUD supportive housing and what is left over I pay for provisions like toiletries, bike maintenance and laundry soap. Sometimes I feel decadent and buy a taco off a roadside food truck. As I immerse myself in the so-called culture of poverty, I wait intently to find people who are “gaming the system”. Personally I don’t know where the incentive lies and at least in this small sample population, I don’t see anyone willing to play that kind of game. What I do see is the trauma caused to vulnerable people by a cruel system.


Contrary to the popular notion that conservative legislators like to use signifying reckless spending of the poor, I am being schooled on how to live frugally by several of my cohort. I was told not to buy the budget brand dish detergent, because they are usually watered down, but I should mostly consider buying generic brand food and I should definitely forget about my expensive taste in coffee. They also clued me in that all the discounted damaged food comes out on the food isles around 10PM at the late night food market.

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I was bemused by the compassion and generosity that impoverished people show toward one another. When I shared that I was almost out of food stamps and it was only the middle of the month, I was probed to whether I needed anything and then offered a half-dozen of eggs. I also noticed in the community space residents are quick to share meals with one another. I am learning as I go along to ask questions about things I don’t know.


For instance I asked, “What is an Obama Phone”? A women amused by my ignorance, explained that it is a disposable cell phone with limited user minutes, which can be had through  a discount voucher through the Department of Human Services. I found out that most of the residents use these phones to stay in contact with the small network of people they still have in their lives and to make appointments with their doctor’s and caseworkers.


When I hear and see the utter contempt that many educated and well-to-do people have for the poor, I wish I could fill my whole shopping cart with steaks and lobster tails, because that is what many educated people seem to think the poor do with their welfare money. I have to chuckle when I hear some people go off on an accusatory tone of how they’ve “seen” the poor people abuse the system. I just wonder how the poor people do that. Do these accusers actually have a way of knowing the personal finances and health of the condemned people by the way they present themselves in public? It may also occur to them that most poor people haven’t always been poor.

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However, part of my self-awareness is to know that I am fairly defiant. I often think how absurd people’s prejudices are. One of my ideas is to walk down the highway in my bathrobe and obnoxious bedroom slippers while walking a chicken, because I feel that this is the kind of bizarre behavior that is expected of me. Also, whenever I am flush with a little extra cash, I would like to walk into bourgeoisie supermarket and indignantly purchase gourmet products just to watch the contemptuous stares as I pay for these items with an EBT card (Electronic Benefit Transfer card).


I am hyper-aware that we live in a culture that makes the distinction between the deserving and non-deserving. For those with physical disabilities, their daily struggles seem obvious to onlooker; however a psychological disability isn’t always clearly apparent, casting doubt. Unless a person is seen talking to his or her voices or screaming naked in the town square, “I am Napoleon”, the mentally ill look as normal as anyone else.  However, that doesn’t negate that the madness doesn’t exist in that person. Even I have some good days.


I must disclose that I do have some reservations writing about this because it does makes me feel naked. Since writing this series of essays, I have been ostracized by family and friends out of fear and obliviousness. This has resulted in more stigma and feelings of estrangement.  I’m not certain what troubles people most, the fact that I live in abject poverty or because I have uncovered myself as someone that suffers from a severe mental illness? Either way I hope there is something in here that will give the reader more empathetic understanding of people who are caught up in this quandary.



“That millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Erich Fromm, The Sane Society




© Dennis Dodson, 2015

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