“‘Fairness’ isn’t giving my money to lazy people.”
“I’m Republican … because we can’t all be on welfare.”
Those two bumper stickers are making the rounds. They indicate an increasing number of people are topping out their compassion gauges. There are other slogans, including some with words that shouldn’t appear in a newspaper, freedom of the press or not.
Our government got into the entitlement business when Ida May Fuller of Rutland, Vt., was sent Social Security check number 00–000–001 for $22.54 on Jan. 31, 1940.
Vast numbers of people objected when Congress decided to coordinate a pension plan to which workers and employers would contribute and from which all retirees who paid into the fund would receive monthly benefits. On principle, it was said, this was not a proper function of government, that it would lead to abuses and sloth and dependency.
And that was in spite of the fact that Social Security, at least initially, was purely a savings program. Participation was mandatory and still is, but what people got out was based on what they put in, the law of averages that governs our life spans and nothing else. Social Security’s blueprint called for no increase in federal outlays. Indeed, this year is the first for Social Security to pay out more than collected from workers and employers.
Subsequent entitlements – and there are dozens and dozens of them – are different and highly varied. And let’s settle this: Benefits don’t just go to poor people.
What Medicare pays for the hospital stay of a 70–year–old billionaire is exactly what it would pay for a 70–year–old bank robber who signed up after being released from 40 years in prison. Millionaires also get Social Security checks.
Fundamentally, though, an entitlement is an open–ended promise. When a store has a grand opening, it might offer toasters to the first 100 customers. When government defines a benefit, such as an unemployment check or Medicaid coverage, there are no limits. If 100 people or 10 million people qualify, the government is obligated to pay.
Last year, conservatives saw it as a “gotcha” moment when President Barack Obama, then a candidate, told Joe the Plumber in so many words that government has an obligation to take and redistribute wealth individuals earn. But it was more of an evolution – the next step in a gradual process – in which Republicans and Democrats seeking advantage over the decades have promised and delivered more and more. It’s been a long time since the federal government’s average daily spending has been anywhere near its average daily income.
Today, more and more people are responding to that, insisting that the brakes must be applied. These are not uncaring people. Many just don’t believe government is even trying to separate those who need help from opportunists of all types. They see a nation of self–reliant innovators becoming a nation of people who sit by their mailboxes and wait for checks.
“You think health care is expensive now? Just wait until it’s Free,” reads another bumper sticker.
Another: “Republicans: We work hard so you don’t have to.”
And a fundamental question: “Why should I pay for your health care?”
That last one poses a profound question that some answer with religion–based adages about “being our brother’s keeper.” That’s fine, but think about that bank robber again. For 40 years, the public paid for his health care – along with his food, his light bill, his clothing bill and every other expense. Was it ‘fair’ to force a young family struggling to make ends meet to share in the costs of room and board for a criminal?
The whole notion of having a nation is about sharing some duties and costs and leaving others up to individuals. Extreme conservatives believe the sharing part should stop with defending the borders, building roads and bridges and delivering the mail. Extreme liberals have no problem with the concept of government as nanny, creating a program to address every need, as the saying goes, from cradle to grave.
In between there’s a broad spectrum of personal ideologies.
Mississippi is a donee state. For decades, federal benefits and federal programs have provided more cash to the state’s economy than the state’s economy has provided to the federal treasury. For a long time, federal programs, including Social Security, have been the largest single provider of personal income in many communities.
The angry group hasn’t suggested pulling the plug on any of that.
So the question is not whether the government should be involved in personal finances or spreading the wealth, but to what extent. The question is where to draw the line.
Some say enough is enough and are speaking through bumper stickers: “Actually, No One Owes You (Anything).”
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182 or e–mail firstname.lastname@example.org.