Every once in a while, you come across some aspect of USian life that really underscores just how parasitical the ruling class really is. There are a lot of things like that, but they’re rarely as on-the-nose as the blood plasma industry. For those who are blissfully unaware, the United States is one of those rare “industrialized” nations that allows people to sell their plasma to supplement their income. This is the point at which a conservative would probably make like George W. Bush and say that that’s just an example of wonderful American Opportunity, but to me it’s a gross failure of society.
I suppose there are differences of opinion on what societies are for, but I generally hold the view that their purpose is to ensure a better standard of living for all, than any of us could hope to achieve working alone. Obviously, this is not a popular opinion among the USian ruling class. That means that rather than ensuring peoples needs are met, it’s considered “better” to let economic desperation drive people to selling parts of themselves to survive.
As these things go, selling blood plasma is probably the least harmful option, after selling hair for wigs. They take your blood, run it through a machine to filter out stuff like blood cells, and pump that back into you, while taking the fluid – plasma – that’s left over. You lose more than just water, but far less than you would from a whole blood donation.
I know a bit about this off the top of my head because, back in 2009, I sold blood plasma to help make ends meet for a while. I think the price has gone up since then, but at the time, in Madison, Wisconsin, I think the most I got was around $350 for my first month of donations, and less after that. I could be mistaken, but that’s what I remember. Rent was a lot lower back then, so that went a bit further than it would today. Unfortunately, it meant getting holes poked in my veins a lot more than I was used to, and, of course, sometimes they’d accidently poke through a vein, rather than just into it.
I started to worry about the long-term consequences of that repeated damage, and because I wasn’t in any real danger of not being able to eat or make rent, I decided to stop. It turns out that while I was probably better off than most people who sell plasma regularly, I was closer to the norm than I realized:
“What I found instead was a lot of people who, say, 25 years ago would have been middle class, and they just don’t make enough money for that lifestyle any more. I get the sense that one of the biggest demographics is college students. We’re talking about like big public universities where there are a lot of students who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds; I’ve talked to people who use this money to buy books, to pay to go out for a night, for ‘beer money’.
“You will also find people in communities like Flint, Michigan, where I spent a lot of time, who used to be able to expect to have this very normal American middle-class lifestyle and wages and benefits no longer keep pace with that. There are people doing it to buy groceries and to pay for housing. There are also people who are selling plasma to take a vacation.
“It’s these places where people are economically fragile, not necessarily desperately poor. The kind of fragility that we didn’t have 25 or 30 years ago when there were more social-safety protections.”
Yep, that’s me. I went to a decent college, and got a bachelor’s in biology with the expectation, based on everything I’d been told from all sides at that point, that I’d be able to find reliable work, have a career with benefits and a prospect of a decent retirement, and all that jazz. My partner at the time was a chemist, and had enough work to keep us afloat, but it was close to impossible for me to find a job “in my field”. I got some canvassing work around the 2008 election, but those jobs left as soon as the election was over (even though it wasn’t canvassing about the election).
I eventually got contract work from the Wisconsin DNR, as I’ve mentioned before, by volunteering for them for a bit, till they found some money for contractors on the side. Basically, I had to do free labor because I cared about the work, in order to get a job. Then-governor Jim Doyle had imposed a hiring freeze for the state government, which meant I couldn’t be hired with a salary, benefits, or anything like that. I got $15 per hour, and had to pay self-employment tax on it, because the Democratic governor thought that austerity was a good idea. That was back when people in the Democratic party believed – or pretended to believe – that Republicans actually cared about “fiscal responsibility” and the national debt.
I don’t think that effort to appeal to conservative voters did anything but help Scott Walker when he came along a short while later.
The article I quoted above is about a book by one Kathleen Mclaughlin, a journalist who depends on blood plasma to survive – someone at the other end of the supply chain that started in my bone marrow. I think it’s a good perspective to have for writing something like this. Selling plasma did feel a bit like having a “good” job. I got paid, and I made the world better for someone else, and being reminded of that someone else does make me feel better about it in hindsight. My problem was the safety of the work itself, though I think it’s possible I was more worried than I needed to be.
McLaughlin did not find significant evidence that giving blood frequently has negative health effects in the long term. “A lot of people get extremely tired. There is a lot of fatigue. A lot of people I talked to didn’t notice anything at all and they’re totally fine with it. It seems like it’s a very personal, individual thing.”
But she does point out that when people donate blood to the nonprofit Red Cross, they are limited to once every 28 days, which works out at 13 times per year. Those who sell to a for-profit centre can do it 104 times a year. “The disparity between those two limits is shocking.”
Honestly, I think I’m going to look into donating blood. I haven’t done that in a long time, and since it’s never caused me any problems, I really ought to. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need and all that.
One thing I found interesting was Mclaughlin’s discussion of stigma:
And whereas donating blood for free is lauded, donating it for money is stigmatised. “If you think about blood donation, it’s something that we consider quite heroic. If you go to the Red Cross and donate blood, you’re saving a life, you’re not getting paid for it.
“But somehow this practice of donating plasma for pay comes with a pretty heavy stigma. A lot of the people I interviewed who do sell plasma had not told their families that they do it because they were afraid of what their families would think: there would be some kind of judgment or their families would be worried about their health or concerned that they don’t have enough money.
‘The stigma is entirely linked to the fact that we stigmatise poverty in the United States. We look down on it. We don’t respect people who aren’t wealthy in the same way that we respect wealthy people. It’s been interesting for me to see the way that people view selling plasma as being somehow problematic and that’s definitely contributed to the fact that this industry is kind of hidden.”
I think she’s spot on about stigmatization of poverty in the United States, but I honestly don’t remember feeling it about selling plasma. I don’t remember if I told my family what I was doing at the time. If I didn’t, it certainly wasn’t because I was afraid they’d judge me – they’re not like that – but more that I didn’t want to worry them. I don’t think I thought about stigma at all, really, but I also was far less aware of class and power dynamics back then. I’m glad I missed that particular worry, but it’s not like poverty lets you get away with no worries at all. This was also the period where my health insurance didn’t cover any emergency rooms in something like a ten mile radius – an easy and effective way for the insurance company to avoid having to pay for my healthcare.
At the end of the article, Mclaughlin is quoted on the ethics of the blood industry, and again, I think she’s spot on. She focuses not on the industry paying for plasma, but on the economic system that, as I’ve said in the past, is designed to use economic desperation to force people to accept things they otherwise wouldn’t. The industry itself isn’t particularly parasitical, other than the obvious direct parallel; it only becomes so in a society set up to constantly feed an already-bloated aristocracy.
Donating blood and plasma is good. I’m even fine with paying people to do it, since they did the work to produce that blood. It’s a huge part of how modern medicine saves and improves lives, and rewarding people for doing it makes sense to me. The problem isn’t that particular financial incentive, so much as everything about the system surrounding it. It’s not “you get paid if you do this good thing”, it’s “if you don’t do this, you might not get to eat today”. That’s about capitalism, and the policies designed to keep certain segment of the population poor and desperate, while treating poverty as a moral failing. It sounds like an interesting book, and I appreciate having insights the industry.
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