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August 28, 2014 3:50 PM When a Little Outrage Becomes a Big Deal

By Ed Kilgore

Probably most people who have been driving for a while have a DMV or parking enforcement horror story they can tell. I have several from DC, one of them revolving around an irrational requirement that you had to prove (via notarized documentation, no less) ownership of a car to pay to have a boot removed (“So I’m a car thief,” I said to an annoyed clerk. “I’m going to pick a car with a boot on it and come pay you $300 to have it removed so I can steal it, instead of stealing a car without a boot?”).

But as David Scheff reminded us in a gripping column at TIME earlier this week, there are plenty of people for whom a mishap that interrupts the use of one’s car isn’t a nuisance, or even a mere outrage, but a personal disaster that leads to other personal disasters. He watched some of them at an impound lot, and observed as he left after paying his fine:

When I reached the front of the line, I handed the clerk my credit card, on which she charged $472. I retrieved my car and drove home. I left behind the roomful of my fellow citizens, a disparate group bound together by the fact that they didn’t have the cash or credit required to free their impounded cars, a fact that threatened livelihoods, stressed families and broke budgets, forcing some people to choose between essentials and paying fees that would continue to accumulate and leave them without another essential, transportation, which in turn could lead to other calamities. If they didn’t find a way to pay the fees, they would ultimately lose their cars (the city auctions them), a loss that for some would be a devastating setback. For me, a towed car was an inconvenience. For them, it was a catastrophe.
Some cases of injustice in America are reported far and wide, such as the horrific shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, targeted by police in what many view as an egregious case of racial profiling. However, we don’t often hear about the countless quieter injustices suffered by tens of millions of Americans on a daily basis. They experience inequities of access to opportunities, quality medical and dental care, quality education, healthful food, affordable and safe housing, childcare, credit, psychological counseling, legal representation, insurance and more. For them, events that others weather unhappily but routinely—a towed car, for example—can lead to a crippling spiral of stress, debt, joblessness, illness and, in many cases, incarceration.

Aaron Carroll notes this is a politically relevant point to understand:

Think about that the next time someone tells you that a $100 copay shouldn’t be a “big deal”. Or how a $25 premium is “insignificant”. Or how over-the-counter birth control is “cheap”.
It may be to you. But not to everyone. Not to far more people in this country than you likely realize.

Now some—not all, but some—of our conservative friends have a nasty habit of looking at fellow human beings with difficult lives or disorganized finances or snowballing, interconnected problems that get out of hand as “losers” or “people who aren’t taking responsibility for themselves.” They may well never have experienced being hounded by creditors or having to choose which bill will have to be paid late each month or what medical problem can be ignored with the least peril or which child’s needs have to be served and sacrified in taking a second job. It’s also true that some of these unsympathetic folk call themselves Christians and even occasionally ask themselves “What Would Jesus Do?” without it for a moment occurring to them that despising people whose lives are a mess is by New Testament standards a much bigger moral failing than bouncing a check or smoking reefer or not paying a parking ticket on time.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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