Monday, April 07, 2003


They have descended on us like a plague, those rickety Department of Corrections look-alike Access-A-Ride busses that presumably transport the disabled as they add to traffic congestion and gasoline consumption. There are hundreds of them – or so it seems – and invariably they are empty or nearly empty. Three passengers would be a crowd. Perhaps there will be more riders, as others figure out what it takes to become eligible for a service whose time has not come. Apart from being incredibly expensive – it costs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $58 for each one-way ride – Access-A-Ride is inefficient and the likelihood is that the disabled will continue to fend for themselves, as they have in the past.

This project is the silly offspring of the notion that government is obliged to meet the needs of nearly every group that has an issue to trumpet. Laws mandating equal access for the disabled are predicated on the questionable view that facilities that neutrally serve the vast majority of people who are not disabled are inherently discriminatory against the disabled unless special means of access are provided, irrespective of the cost or whether the remedy is effective. Under this standard, subways are on their face instrumentalities of discrimination; hence we have been blessed or saddled with Access-A-Ride.

Concern for the disabled, which is certainly virtuous and a social obligation, is translated into an expensive activity that at the end of the day scarcely removes the burden of disability. It is telling that few disabled persons take advantage of Access-A-Ride and that in the main the few passengers are persons who are not disabled but who have found a way to get on the bus. Could it be that for most truly disabled people the solution that is being offered is no solution at all because it is not convenient or comfortable?

When organized groups clamor for a governmental benefit, politicians respond lemming-like because that’s what politicians have been conditioned to do. Pandering is in their blood, the essence of their culture. They just can’t say no, even when what is being asked of them won’t be of much help or is too expensive. They enact laws, an exercise that essentially passes the buck and the cost to others. They believe that in order to get elected they need to respond favorably to every small organized clique. Put otherwise, politicians care more about the demands of one-hundred people who get together than the pressing needs of thousands of anonymous faces in the crowd.

The assumption is that it’s no sweat off anyone’s back to cater to group demands when funding comes from tax revenue and no one can claim that he or she is footing the bill. It matters little that public funds are not limited and that priorities need to be set, so that favoritism in one direction inevitably means that other needs will not be met. Invariably, this means that those who are less organized and also the most needy get the short end of the stick.

At times, the cost of a benefit is directly borne by others. Access-A-Ride funding comes out of the budget of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority which has just imposed huge fare increases that will be a burden to many passengers, specifically including a large number of the working poor. The MTA claims that it has a huge operating deficit, some of which results from Access-A-Ride. Even more can be attributed to senior citizen discounts, one of an expanding number of perks offered to those, including this writer, whose eligibility is based on nothing other than that they have reached the not ripe old age of 65.

There is a popular view that to be a senior citizen is to be a member of a multi-million member group of discriminated against persons. As a consequence, those who are over 65 deserve every governmental benefit and protection that they can lobby for. There is, in fact, age discrimination and it can be ugly, notably in employment, although efforts to correct it have resulted in serious collateral damage, as in the devastation wreaked in the ranks of young Ph.D.s who cannot find employment in academia (except perhaps as adjuncts) because old fogies insist on staying on.

However one looks at this issue, there is a considerable body of reliable social statistics showing that seniors are far better off than younger people. Those who doubt this should just consider the cost of housing for the young or the cost of raising a family. In the event, there is no good reason why commuters who are under 65 should help subsidize the fare of those who are above that age.

America is awash in claims of victimization and entitlement. Nearly every status – ethnicity, gender, age, etc. – gives rise to charges of mistreatment and demands for remedial action by government that usually come with big dollar signs attached. Since we all have multiple statuses, victimization claims exceed by far the total population.

There are obviously people with genuine needs who rightfully merit governmental attention and assistance, including the poor, young people who are in distress and the physically and mentally ill. As other groups have pressed their demands, the legitimate needs of the most needy are increasingly being short-changed because attention and resources are being diverted to causes that are popular or trendy. Unless we get out of the victimization/entitlement trap, the situation of our most needy is likely to become more precarious.

These days, governments everywhere face huge deficits. Inevitably, there are budgetary cuts, as well as increased taxes and fees, including the 50 cents per ride fare hike. As one admittedly modest way of closing at least New York’s massive budgetary gap, can we at least hope that the gas-guzzling, traffic-clogging Access-A-Ride monstrosities will be scrapped?