content warning: mental illness, isolation, state-violence
Blossom Segaloff lives on the East Side, in a small apartment in an affordable housing community intended for seniors. Paintings by her mother and late husband hang from the walls of her apartment. She proudly shows me a portrait her mother painted of her when she was eight years old. In it, Segaloff stands in a red hat against a backdrop of pale blue flowers. She’s kept the painting since childhood, but this is the first apartment in which she’s had enough space to display it. It now hangs over her bed. At 86 years old, Segaloff lives almost entirely off her monthly $725 social security benefit. She says that her monthly payment increased only two dollars from last year. “What in the world do these people think?” Segaloff laughed resignedly as she spoke. “How could they possibly think there’s been only two dollars of an increase in the price of things?” Living on a fixed income, every aspect of Segaloff’s life has to be budgeted. She pulled out a notice from her building’s administration warning that the price of laundry had increased several dollars to offset the cost of new machines. “Things keep going up,” she says. Since the beginning of last month, one new expense has stretched Segaloff’s budget even closer to its breaking point.
On February 1, 2017, the state of Rhode Island officially terminated a four-decade-old program whereby low-income seniors and people with disabilities were granted no-fare passes on transit offered by the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority (RIPTA). The program’s termination affects nearly 4,000 seniors and 9,000 Rhode Islanders with disabilities. RIPTA’s original policy proposal called for an increase to $1 for a ride and 50 cents to transfer, half the cost of the full RIPTA fare. But after public pushback lead by organizations such as the Rhode Island Organizing Project (RIOP), Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), and the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo pressured the RIPTA board to instead increase fares to 50 cents per ride and 25 cents per transfer. While this reduction was a win for community opponents of the fare hike, the 50 cent fare hike is still a debilitating blow to many Rhode Islanders. Under a 50 cent fare, a mere four bus rides completely offsets this year’s $2 increase in monthly benefits. For Segaloff and thousands of others living under similar circumstances, a few extra dollars can make or break a monthly budget already strained to its limit.
The fare increase comes after years of financial struggle for RIPTA, and a two-year fight between Governor Raimondo, state legislators, the RIPTA administration, and local advocacy organizations seeking to prevent the increase. In an attempt to mitigate the impacts of the hike, the Governor has instituted a pilot program whereby the state distributes a limited number of free ten-ride passes monthly to seniors and veterans. But the program does not provide enough passes to distribute to all of those seniors and veterans affected, and the passes themselves cover less than a third of the financial burden these communities now face, as no-fare pass users typically ride the bus more than thirty times each month. Furthermore, the ten ride passes are not available to the larger group of riders who are disabled. Less than a month into the new reduced-fare program, the Independent sat down with several Providence residents, like Segaloff, to discuss the ways in which the fare increase is already impacting their access to resources.
Since the fare increase, Segaloff, who has limited mobility, has had difficulty making it to her regular doctor’s appointments. Segaloff’s struggle is not an uncommon one. Nearly 10 percent of Rhode Island’s seniors live below the federal poverty line, which, according to the Department of Human Services’ most recent report, is the largest percentage of people in any Northeast state. Meanwhile, 28 percent of Rhode Island residents with disabilities live in poverty, compared with 12 percent of the general population, as reported by the 2016 RI Disability Compendium. Most of these Rhode Islanders are unable to afford private transportation, and both seniors and those living with disabilities often have more difficulty walking long distances. Seniors and people with disabilities are also more in need of accessible healthcare and more dependent on RIPTA than others. For those who live in Providence’s low-income and predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, where healthcare resources are already particularly scarce, the new fare compounds the difficulty of getting proper healthcare. Many of those who spoke to the Independent described their difficulty accessing care under the new system. Wilfredo Santana attends the Oasis Center, a community space and support facility for adults with mental disabilities. Santana described the way the new fare was impacting his health, “I had to cancel a bunch of doctors appointments that I really needed. I have a problem with my ear and it could cause a complication cancelling the appointments because I haven’t been able to get back and forth.” Santana said that if he doesn’t have an appointment soon, it’s possible he could lose his ear.
Wendy Thomas, a lifelong Rhode Island resident and member of the RIOP, has had similar problems accessing medical care. After enduring three heart attacks and a hip replacement by age 52, Thomas’s health problems forced her to retire early. She now lives mostly on her monthly Social Security disability check. Thomas explains that she’s now on twelve different medications, and recently had to pay $1.50 to go to and from her pharmacy only to discover that one of her copays had soared from $3 to $50—part of a larger trend of price increases on common medications. Thomas couldn’t afford her medication this month, and added that she had been feeling the physical consequences of the increase directly. “I’ve had a lot of chest pain the past two days and I think it’s the anxiety from all of this stuff going on,” she told the Independent. Christine Tate, another member of RIOP, has also had trouble affording medication: “I can’t choose between my medicine and the bus. It’s insulin, I need that. I’ve got two more prescriptions to pick up this month. If you go a quarter into [your budget] you either don’t have your prescription copays or you don’t have a ticket to the pharmacy.”
Many of those who have had their passes revoked have also struggled with food insecurity. Seniors and people with disabilities are often less able to carry large quantities of groceries in one trip. As a result, many have been forced to choose between spending extra money on a bus fare to a large supermarket multiple times per week, or buying at higher prices at local grocery stores. Tate described the issue on a small scale: “At the corner store, a little bottle of hot sauce like this is $3.49,” she held out her fingers to demonstrate the size, “Come on, for that you could get a big bottle at Stop n’ Shop or Price Rite.” Segaloff described shopping at the supermarket as one of her primary social activities. “I tend to go to the market at least every couple of days. And there I’m known, people are friendly to me, they know me by name… in a way it’s my little social club.” Since her pass was revoked, Segaloff has had to reconsider the necessity of such small pleasures. Meanwhile, many who have had their passes revoked can also no longer afford to travel to soup kitchens for free meals. RIOP reports that attendance at the Providence In-Town Churches Association soup kitchen is down 25 percent since the beginning of the month.
The social isolation imposed by the fare increase has also had a serious impact on the health of many people living with mental illness. The financial burden of even a 50 cent pass lead many of those who spoke with the Independent to choose confinement in their own homes over the risk of breaking their budget. Tate normally manages to volunteer at the soup kitchen at Mathewson Street Church four or five days a week. Soon after the fare increase, however, the cost of the bus had already become prohibitive. She says that the week before she we met, she spent an entire seven days in her apartment, unable to get to her regular appointments and commitments for fear of breaking her budget. Tate suffers from depression, and after a week alone she noticed she was losing the willpower to leave the house entirely. She teared up in frustration as she explained the difficulty she experienced and her anger at the state: “Why can’t they help us be without depression? We are without food, we can’t even get the money together to get on the bus and go see a person. The more we stay inside, the [greater the] depression.” At the time we spoke, Tate didn’t know how she was going to get to her psychiatrist appointment on the East Side later that week. Santana expressed a sentiment similar to Tate’s: “If I couldn’t get [out] I would probably be sitting at home depressed thinking about things I shouldn’t be thinking about, and that’s happening to a lot of people.”
Charlie Feldman, the Director of Communication at the Oasis Center, explained the consequences of the social isolation faced by people who struggle with mental health: “Mental illness can be isolating. People tend to withdraw from society because they’re either judged or not accepted. If people can come here, it gives people support to embrace recovery.” This cycle of isolation is a commonly acknowledged risk factor for mental illness. A 2009 review of data on mental health and social isolation in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that “a large body of research suggests a potentially strong correlation between…isolation and mental health problems, especially depression. Loneliness is a key predictor of depression among older adults, in particular.”
Feldman elaborated on the failed logic of the fare increase: “If people can’t afford to come here then that whole process is going to be disrupted, and recovery won’t happen. Then people end up in the hospital in the emergency room, and that will end up costing the state more money in the long run.” This is a common argument that has been made by detractors of the fare hike, who say that while ending the no-fare program may shrink RIPTA’s budget, it will ultimately cost the state more money in the long-run. Citing increased hospitalizations, particularly of people with mental illness, and increased incarceration of seniors and disabled people who cannot afford to travel to see their probation or parole officers, advocates for seniors and people with disabilities argue the policy will be an even greater burden on state resources than the no-fare program. An estimated $900,000 would be required in the state budget to maintain the no-fare program. The cost of an average hospital stay, which for most no-fare pass users is covered by Medicare or Medicaid, hovers around $10,000, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Meanwhile, the Vera Institute for Justice reports the average yearly expense of incarcerating one person at Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institute as around $50,000. By this logic, fewer than 100 hospitalizations or fewer than 20 parole violations that result from the new fare would cost the state as much money as the no-fare program required to function.
In addition to increasing the burden on the state, activists add that the fare hike will also increase dependence on independent organizations and nonprofits that are already struggling to secure proper funding. Support organizations are under pressure to purchase and distribute free passes, but don’t have the funding to do so. The fare increase also prevents many retired low-income people who volunteer from attending their regular commitments at those same organizations. Thomas, who is a member of RIOP, said that in the second week of the month a nearby soup kitchen was already missing thirty regular volunteers. Thomas herself was unable to pay the bus fare to her regular volunteering commitment at Mathewson Street Church the day she spoke with the Independent, and instead had to walk from her home in Smith Hill. She didn’t know how she was going to walk back up the hill without putting her heart at risk. When asked how this affected her, Thomas replied simply with a sigh: “It’s one of those weeks.”
Several Providence residents who had their passes revoked spoke of an acute feeling of disrespect on the part of the state. William Strom, a member of the Oasis Center, explained, “I don’t feel respected, I feel like I’m being put down because I’m disabled. It’s like we’re lowest on the totem pole and I don’t know what it’s going to take to get it through RIPTA’s head that we can’t afford this.” William Rogers, who attends the Center with Strom, put it succinctly, “It kills me that they’re trying to legislate against poverty.”
The February 1 fare increase hurts in marginalized communities particularly because of its place in a statewide pattern of targeting low-income Rhode Islanders. A rash of attempted anti-panhandling ordinances last year, heavily fought by the Rhode Island ACLU, sought to target people experiencing homelessness and poverty across the state. On a larger scale, Governor Raimondo’s 2017/18 budget proposal makes clear the continuation of her administration’s policy of choking off state spending for social services and benefits, which her administration calls “consumption-oriented spending.” In particular Raimondo has publicized a $100 million savings in Medicaid spending, and aims to save $39 million more this year. This proud proclamation rings particularly hollow in light of policies like the fare increase, which propagate negative health outcomes for many Rhode Islanders on Medicaid and Medicare. This realignment of the budget is framed by the administration as a forward thinking investment in growth, but amounts to the construction of Rhode Island’s ‘future’ on the backs of its most vulnerable.
The trend towards cuts in services and benefits is not without opposition by some more progressive lawmakers. State Rep. William W. O'Brien and others have already introduced bills that would reinstitute the no-fare program, but even in a best-case scenario, the legislation won’t be voted on and instituted until this summer. In the meantime, Rhode Islanders like Christine Tate have been left out in the cold.
Tate has lived in Rhode Island for more than four decades. After moving to the state at age 18, she took up work as a nursing assistant and eventually raised a son and daughter in Providence. Throughout this time she worked side jobs in a clothing factory and as a hotel maid. After 21 years of nursing work, Tate was forced to move on from the job because of injuries she suffered to her back. Not one to resign herself, Tate went on to work in a restaurant kitchen for nine years. A back surgery and a hip replacement later, one day she got down on the floor and couldn’t get back up. Tate had to undergo a second back surgery. Qualifying for disability benefits, she reluctantly retired early. Today, Tate lives alone, her son passed away in 2003 and her daughter lives elsewhere. She gets by on around $700 a month in benefits. As Tate sat in the small RIOP office, she explained the depth of her disappointment in the state government. She summarized the anger and frustration felt by many Rhode Islanders with similar stories: “The people that stayed here, worked here, slaved here and made their lives about building up Providence, now they’re tearing us down…We already gave to the system, now the system should be able to give back to us.”
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