Fat, the Law, and Society
I will not tackle race or gender issues, even though WV’s coal miners’ families were targeted by the “Kansas Krazies” after our WV Supreme Court wisely awarded a child to her lesbian, non-biological mother. Race is beyond me, and not a major, immediate, problem in Buckhannon, where almost everyone is the same race. Let’s just say I have come a long way on these issues, but they deserve more time and effort than I can devote here.
But fat (obesity) is a huge problem in WV. We are the “Fattest of 50”. This is counter-intuitive. How can “rugged mountaineers” who have provided the highest percentage of soldiers and casualties in our wars, and whose landscape is one big “stair stepper”, have the highest obesity rate in the country?
No doubt, the problems we have with our economy, poverty, educations, and our mountainous terrain, the very things that rank us so low in these areas, help to rank us high in obesity.
How is obesity a “legal issue”?
1. Let’s start with divorce. I had a client who everyone described as petite and beautiful as a young bride, appear in my office exhausted, with immune system problems, back problems, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression, and a husband who had walked out on her.
2. The witnesses said she and her husband had had a near idyllic marriage for 15 years.
3. But, when I met her, all she could do was cry. She had increased her weight, over the years, by MORE THAN 100%!
4. She and her husband had stopped being intimate, and she had applied for SSI (welfare, or “means tested”) disability benefits. Why “means tested” benefits? Because she had been a stay at home wife and mother. Now hubby just wanted to “throw her away”.
5. “Means tested” benefits are awarded only if the applicant is nearly destitute. She or he may have no more than $2000 in cash assets. They may own a home, I think, but most don’t. Any earnings must be deducted from the benefit, so there is no incentive for the person even to work part time. And, the benefit is around $600 per month.
6. That means that if I get my client $300 per month alimony, she gets that $300 and $300 from the government. She is stuck at $600, so her only hope is to live with a relative. In one case the former husband continued to pay her “under the table”. She “fired” me so she and he could go in and lie to the court.
7. I thought I had figured out how to put the alimony into a “special needs trust” for use on all sorts of things, fitness equipment, roof repairs, even a new t.v., but the WV Dept of Health and Human Resources (WVDHHR), after approving one of them, wised up and objected, and the Court agreed with them. No more special needs trust funded by alimony. This is very unfortunate.
8. So, lifestyle choices, comfort, fast food, and sedentary habits, lead thousands of West Virginians into ill health, unhappiness, poverty, or all three!
9. WV working men are more likely to work until their 50’s when the back, knees, and hips go out. Then they apply for Social Security Disability or Worker’s Compensation. These are much more robust programs. The combination of obesity and injury to a back or weight bearing joint, combined with heart or breathing issues, is a gold mine for the Social Security and Workers Comp bar. I once associated with an attorney who told our client, “You are ten lb. over the Social Security minimum, so keep eating.” I withdrew from that case.
10. Then there are the obese personal injury victims, such as the woman referenced above whose weight doubled during their marriage. She still had the same skeletal and muscular structures that she had as a younger woman, except for the arthritic joints, with “ossification” (build up of bony structures) of the joints. When obese people are in a collision, there is an exponential increase in the stress to ligaments and bones. Ironically, getting them fair compensation is harder than for their thinner counterparts.
12. Whether they admit it or not, the jury tends to believe that the obese person somehow deserves the greater injury and will not compensate them for it.
15. Fattening food is the major draw to many church events, and the harsh reality is that mainstream churches are dwindling anyway. So, you are not going to hear the preacher railing against the pancake breakfast, or the men’s bacon and egg breakfast, or the ice cream and shortcake.
16. Why doesn’t every church have a women’s and men’s exercise group, a nutrition study group, or a children’s healthful eating program? You tell me.
17. That’s enough beating up on churches. We have busy lives. It is so hard to stay “low carb” when you eat at “drive-throughs” three or four times a week as I do. But, 5-6 months out of the year, with great effort, we work to knock off that 10-15 lb. that tend to build up. I am fortunate it isn’t two to three times that.
18. Dr. Laura, the radio personality, is pretty tough on this subject for women. She criticizes the obese person who failed to attend to weight, fitness, and intimacy issues to the detriment of her marriage and family. It is easy to criticise, but the simple fact is obesity is a plague on our society, and especially on West Virginians.
This post was written by Burton Hunter