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Social Security trust funds and Grandma’s bed

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America is at a crossroads. There is a tug of war between maintaining certain safety nets for citizens (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) and pushing citizens toward self reliance.

Do we dig deeper to fund programs, or do we need to return to simpler lifestyles? Those are tough questions to sort out over the next election cycle.

A U.S. government annual report now estimates that Social Security trust funds will be exhausted in 2033, three years earlier than projected a year ago. To keep it going, the government will eventually have to raise taxes, cut benefits or borrow or print more money.

Whether reasons for the default lie with retiring Baby Boomers, debt, unemployment, the mortgage crises or people simply living longer, politicians and governments are wrangling with tough questions about the role of government in our lives.

This time around, we have a tug of war between maintaining certain safety nets for citizens (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) and pushing citizens toward self reliance. (All will have an impact on how farm policy is eventually written). So, do we dig deeper to fund programs, or move Grandma back in the house? Let me explain.

I’m old enough to remember the time when families simply didn’t need much  help from Uncle Sam. My father had an unwritten rule. If something looked like we couldn’t afford it, or afford to keep it up, we simply did not buy it or buy into it.

When my siblings and I complained about this oppressive frugality, my father, whose primary point of reference regarding household budgets was his survival of the Great Depression, would tell his favorite story about three generations of Robinsons living under one roof, in a four-room house with no air-conditioning. My father seemed almost proud of the fact that he had to sleep in the same bed with his grandmother and brother until he was 11.

Despite the ubiquitous cockleburs and coyotes, everything they needed could be found on their farm in east Texas. The most frivolous items in my father’s house were a ringer box telephone and Philco radio.

My father was a teenager when Social Security came along in the 1930s ostensibly to provide for the elderly and retired as the country tried to resuscitate itself from the Great Depression. Who would have thought it would turn into such a mess 80 years later?

Social Security no doubt has altered the landscape of American life. For one, it has allowed my mother to live independently of her children and grandchildren in the home where she has lived most of her life. That is a point of significant pride for her, a perk she richly, and rightly, deserves, especially for all the money she and Dad paid in.

But if future generations are denied Social Security, or have to pay so much in taxes that the benefit is erased or diminished, what will happen? Will government find a way to keep funding it? Or will we have to take a step back in time?

One day, will our children and grandchildren whisper “move over Grandma,” as they slip into their beds as night?

It probably won’t come to that. But it’s something to think about. 

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