Ever hear a businessperson talk about their overhead? Overhead is the embedded cost to delivering the product or service. It may include wages, employee insurance, commercial rent for office space, business insurance, cost of vehicles, office equipment and other fixed costs below the line. In short, every cost an employer incurs before he makes a profit.
Life too has overhead. Twenty years ago, I first encountered the term one Sunday morning in a short piece written by an Arizona Republic guest columnist during the holiday season. In it, she referred to the notion that life itself seemed to have compressed over the years. Free time evaporated. To Do lists were longer Must Do lists were more demanding. She called it Life’s Overhead.
Those 700 words and the sentiment they conveyed made a lifelong impression on me. I wonder what she would write today as life’s overhead has now become even more smothering and the net time we have left for family, relationships, community and, most importantly, OURSELVES, has diminished to the point of a point of zero for many. This is especially true for the under-resourced and low-income population. The increased time spent simply trying to be a functional human being, layered with the external costs and time demands laid upon us by modern societal institution (both public and private) can leave us exhausted and even hopeless.
So, in a broad a context, that is my answer. We, as individuals in civil society, are increasingly tethered by burdens not of our making. These burdens cannot be ignored and effectively navigating through them has become necessary to function in today’s world. The perplexing dilemma is that life continues to become more complicated and we sometimes just don’t have the bandwidth and coping skills. In my view, this is a colossal barrier to health and self-sufficiency – and I’d love the opportunity to expound more during an interview.
For now, consider the first 3 to be my top 3. In drawing that opinionated line, I maintain that they are all potential ingredients in a complex cocktail of social and economic issues that make self-sufficiency challenging. To list the 3 major factors as the most pressing is to ignore many of others because the answer is as personal as the individual or family experiencing it. In truth, there exists a long list of problems that, taken individually or collectively, prevent or exacerbate a person’s inability to make a go of it.
“ Even though Phoenix is a relatively affordable housing market, the costs of home ownership has spiked dramatically. My own modest house 4 miles from downtown has more than doubled in value in the six years I’ve owned it. The average family of four would have to make about $60,000 to qualify for an FHA loan assuming no other debt. That is not affordable. Even the most superficial analysis of the apartments being built in the Phoenix market will reveal that a very small percentage of them are affordable. Luxury apartments fuel the market. Consider also that most renters must demonstrate a stream of income, post a security deposit and surmount other hurdles before they can ink the lease. Potential landlords run credit and full background checks that often disqualify renters.
“ Making a living in the Phoenix metro area has always meant car required for over 90% of us. The Light Rail system and expansion of in bus service, telecommuting, bike to work and other options have helped provide desperately needed alternatives. Still, if a person does not have personal transportation, if that transportation is unreliable or if they don’t have connectivity from their residence to potential employers it is a near insurmountable problem. Affordable housing and easily accessed employment are often not geographically proximate.
“ The cost and availability of health care was the most important issue for many voters in the recent election. If the 50% of the eligible voters who turned out to vote articulated this concern, imagine how huge the issue is for low income individuals & families that may not even be registered to vote or just didn’t show. Some supporting facts:
“ Think what any of the following would mean to you in your life:
“ The state of Arizona defunded many of the CMI services over two decades ago and a corresponding spike in homelessness soon followed. People with untreated mental conditions are less likely to be physically healthy, functioning or economically self-sustaining. For some, it become irreversible. Also, arguably, the Criminal Justice system is increasingly the tool used to address mental health issues. To the extent that this continues it diverts precious tax dollars from other services, stigmatizes people, and exacerbates the long-term problem “ especially for those desiring to enter the workforce.
“ We live in a world that now requires technology. This essay is being written on a computer at my kitchen table. It will be submitted by email. I discovered the job opening while surfing on my iPhone. But what if I could not afford a computer or phone (or couldn’t keep it operating properly)? What if I couldn’t afford an iPhone much less my $71 monthly Verizon bill? This problem barely existed 20-30 years ago but today it is the elephant in the room as we become a society of technology haves and have nots.
“ The old joke goes that banks will lend money to everyone except those who need it. If a person lives from check to check and cannot establish an account and keep a minimum balance, they effectively can’t function on a level playing field with the rest of society. Say they don’t have a credit or debit card in an economy that increasingly demands both. Often, a credit card is required to make a purchase or to validate entry into the Internet of Things electronic world where commerce is increasingly conducted. What if a person has none of has lost their credit? Also, today’s use of credit scores goes far beyond traditional applications for credit. A low score can impede a person’s ability to find employment and housing and even increase the cost of car insurance. Little recourse is available or effective in righting the wrongs of credit agencies and bad credit is an often-overlooked factor in keeping people trapped in poverty.
– Food is life no less than air and water. Nutrition is different from food. As our food supply system has become more industrialized and mass marketed there has been a corresponding rise in poor quality highly processed foods that are less healthy and laden with fats, sugar and preservatives. The human body adapts poorly. Diabetes and obesity cases have skyrocketed. Over processed food substitutes are more convenient, don’t take time to prepare, are readily available and are even considered addictive “ but consider the choice in the context of life’s overhead. Over time, the damaging impact of a poor diet often leads to poor health. Causation is clearly demonstrated. Correcting the damage takes personal resolve and the economic means to make the change. And the gym membership and daily exercise so fundamental to my life it an unattainable luxury for many.
“ I recently lived in New England where much of the energy source is natural gas wheeled in on pipelines from Canada. It is expensive and service disruptions can be life threatening. Six states are in various stages of the process of diversifying and decentralizing their energy mix to make the system more resilient. Doing so will lower costs to all consumers and proportionately benefit lower income citizens to a greater degree. Here in Arizona, the seasonal nature of the problem is different, but the demands are similar. People need electricity to cool their homes, run their appliances (what if you didn’t have a refrigerator, washer, dryer, oven, microwave or – God Forbid – a TV)? What if you couldn’t charge your computer or cell phone? What if you couldn’t pay your water / sewer / sanitation bill? The ability to flip a switch – be it a thermostat, light or any appliance – is taken for granted, but how quickly life changes without it. Shelter (housing) is not enough without functionality (utility service) and that is why programs like the ones you administer are literally a lifeline.
To conclude, I need to conclude. Of course, there is much more and there is no single correct answer.
Identifying and articulating the problems is a start.
Understanding the problems and the complex interplay between them requires thoughtful empathy and compassion.
Addressing them through public, private, nonprofit and other means in an efficient, cost effective and impactful way is always the challenge.
I’d be delighted to speak to you in person.
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