Feb 13 2012
Suggested reading: Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It
Posted by: Kevin B. Gilnack, Campaign Manager
LINDSTROM, Minn. — Ki Gulbranson owns a logo apparel shop, deals in jewelry on the side and referees youth soccer games. He makes about $39,000 a year and wants you to know that he does not need any help from the federal government.
He says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He supports politicians who promise to cut government spending. In 2010, he printed T-shirts for the Tea Party campaign of a neighbor, Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region’s long-serving Democratic congressman.
Yet this year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.
While The Caring Force is focused on strengthening human services here in Massachusetts, it is important to be aware of the dialogue taking place in cities and towns across America -- and in one of the largest newspapers in America.
This weekend, The New York Times featured a lengthy article looks at the conundrum facing state and federal budget-makers: more and more, Americans are receiving some form of assistance from the government, despite a growing sentiment that the government should do less and tax less.
Interestingly, the article notes: "Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates."
Providing the adequately funded supports for our most vulnerable neighbors is a nonpartisan issue, and we invite everyone to join the movement to strengthen services and salaries for those who deliver them. But we also realize that the division between parties and tone of campaigns has a ripple affect on our ability to leverage community support.
The story notes:
And as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside. Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.
The expansion of government benefits has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Rick Santorum, who won 57 percent of the vote in Chisago County in the Republican presidential caucuses last week, has warned of “the narcotic of government dependency.” Newt Gingrich has compared the safety net to a spider web. Mitt Romney has said the nation must choose between an “entitlement society” and an “opportunity society.” All the candidates, including Ron Paul, have promised to cut spending and further reduce taxes.
The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.
While there is real work to be done in reforming federal entitlement programs, it is also critically important that supporters of safety net programs tell their stories, and we commend The New York Times on helping put a face on the people behind the budget numbers:
Take Bob Kopka and his wife:
Bob Kopka and his wife often drive to the American Legion hall in North Branch on Thursday nights, joining the crowd gathered in the basement bar for the weekly meat raffle. Almost everyone present relies on the government to pay for their medical care.
Mr. Kopka, 74, has had three heart procedures in recent years. His wife recently had surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes.
Without Medicare, Mr. Kopka said, the couple could not have paid for the treatments.
“Hell, no,” he said. “No. Never. She would have to go blind.”
Few federal programs are more popular than Medicare, which along with Social Security assures a minimum quality of life for older Americans.
Or 71-year-old Barbara Sullivan:
“Most of the seniors around here are struggling to make it,” she said.
She counts herself among them. She lives on $1,220 a month in Social Security benefits and relied on Medicare to pay for an operation in November.
She believes that she is taking more from the government than she paid in taxes. She worries about the consequences for her grandchildren. She said she would like politicians to propose solutions.
“We’re reasonable people,” she said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Give it to me and let my grandchildren suffer.’ I think they underestimate seniors when they think that way.”
But she cannot imagine asking people to pay higher taxes. And as she considered making do with less, she started to cry.
“Without it, I’m not sure how I would live,” she said. “With the check I’m getting from Social Security, it’s a constant struggle on making sure that I pay my rent and have enough left for groceries.
“I haven’t bought a Christmas present, I haven’t bought clothing in the last five years, simply because I can’t afford it.”
Or Gordy Peterson, 62, who has used a wheelchair for 30 years since a construction accident, and has reluctantly reached a similar conclusion:
“I’m a conservative,” he said by way of introducing himself. He built his own house before his injury and paid for it in cash. He still thinks the government should operate that way. He never intended to depend on federal aid and said he sometimes felt guilty about it.
But for the last three decades, he has received a regular check from the Social Security disability insurance program, and Medicare has helped to pay his medical bills.
“Here I’m getting money, and everybody is struggling,” he said. “Even though it ain’t no cakewalk for me.”
Mr. Peterson used a workers’ compensation settlement to buy a farm that he managed with his brother-in-law, who is mentally handicapped and also on government disability.
“He was my legs, and we worked it,” Mr. Peterson said.
They grew corn, soybeans and rye, and even kept steers for a while. In good years they earned enough to live on. In bad years they lived on the government’s checks. Life would have been very difficult without them, he said.
Mr. Peterson, an easygoing man who looks down when he thinks and smiles sheepishly when he offers an opinion, looked down after completing the story of his own dependence on the safety net.
“It’s hard to beat up on the government when they’ve been so good to you,” he finally said. “I’ve never really thought about it, I guess.”
Lately, the government has been very good, indeed. The county, with federal financing, bought a corner of Mr. Peterson’s farm to build a new interchange for Interstate 35. He used the money to open a gas station at the edge of the farm in 2008 to serve the traffic that rolls off the new ramp. The business is prospering, and he no longer worries that he will need to depend on Social Security.
“But you can’t take that away,” he said. “My own sister has only Social Security. That’s all. That’s all she’s going to have. And if you take that away from her, Christ, she’d be a street person. I don’t think we can cut them off on that.”
How about higher taxes?
Maybe a little higher, he said. Maybe.
“I’m glad I’m not a politician,” he said. “We’re all going to complain no matter what they do. Nobody wants to put a noose around their own neck.”
Have you seen the impact that human service programs have on youth, elders, people with disabilities, seeking family planning services, recovering from substance use issues, escaping domestic violence, or in need of shelter or a warm meal? Have you received services or been able to go to work while someone you care about has received these types of services?