Saving the Future

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When my father died, my mother brothers and I received survivors benefits based on whatever he had put into the fund while he was alive and working. Given that he was only thirty three when he died I suspect that it was never very much, but it definitely kept us afloat until each of us turned eighteen years old. We never qualified for what was commonly called welfare or food stamps but I feel certain that some people might have been a bit disturbed that we got that even that small extra boost from Social Security given the hullabaloos that arise surrounding that program over and over again. Now there seem to be renewed threats to cut government costs by either eliminating or restricting the Social Security program in various ways.

When I was earning my master’s degree I took a course in compensation. It was an eye opening experience particularly with regard to Social Security. The professor informed us that the program had long ago stopped working the way it had been initially designed to operate. He pointed out that when Social Security was born in the days of President Franklin Roosevelt actuaries had determined that the average age of death in the United States was somewhere in the mid to late sixties. Thus the age at which people were expected to actually collect their benefits was designed in the belief that most people who might have qualified would already be dead. In other words there was never any intent to pay out to everyone who had invested their money in the program. 

I don’t know how true my professor’s statements had been but I found it both enlightening and shocking to think that much of the reason that the Social Security program always seems to be in trouble is because Congress has not regularly increased the age at which benefits might begin. Only reluctantly have they slowly moved the age for full benefits to sixty seven years and now there are loud whispers that maybe seventy might be a better age for full benefits. 

Perhaps this is indeed true, but our national dilemma regarding Social Security is based on how long people are now living because of improved medical care in our country. Because people are generally healthier these days does not mean that they are capable of working at more and more advanced ages. So many jobs would be exceedingly difficult for senior citizens to perform. There is a big difference between sitting at a desk performing tasks all day and engaging in manual labor or even performing duties like those that nurses and teachers must do. Jobs that require incredible energy and physical involvement become more and more difficult after a certain age with few exceptions.

We all know individuals who seem to defy time with their energy and ability to work well into their eighties. My grandfather was still working at NASA when he was eighty eight. It was only when someone discovered him climbing ladders and realizing how old he was that he was politely asked to leave. Few others would have been able to work as long as he did. He lived to the ripe old age of one hundred eight and was still installing panelling and doing major repairs in his home. Few among us remain so able to maintain our youthful abilities to work long hours. 

So the elephant in the room remains how to keep Social Security programs going for the benefit of the elderly, the widows, the children of deceased parents and the disabled. It’s a daunting task, but suddenly deciding to toss it out is not the answer. Perhaps we need higher contributions from every worker, especially the wealthiest among us. We can also consider creating bonuses for those who are able and choose to work to older ages. We might also think about studying all of the exceptions inherent in the tangled rules for the purpose of streamlining them. 

We seem to be at a juncture in which we want to have our cake and eat it too. We have become a society that prizes wealth and conspicuous consumption all too much. Perhaps it is time that each of us dial back our spending and our unwillingness to pay more now for good benefits later. 

I just today completed a lesson in gross versus net income with one of my students (Yes. I am still working on a very limited basis.) I spoke of various deductions as well as the cost of saving versus borrowing to fund today’s desires. My student was shocked to learn about financial realities and she even commented that she would be able to save a great deal because she is not particularly interested in unnecessary clothing or expensive foods. She mentioned that she enjoys life as her family lives it now with vacations to see relatives, cars that are slightly used, and visits to discount and thrift stores that provide many of their needs. At a young age she is excited about living a simple life. Maybe therein lies the secret to having a safety net for everyone. 

If we learn how to do with less, if we are willing to contribute more and if we can push ourselves to work a bit longer then perhaps we can save Social Security for another generation We may also want to welcome the immigrants who are doing so much of the heavy duty manual work in our country today. We will need them in the future just as our country once needed workers from China and Italy and all parts of the world just like my grandparents from Slovakia. If we join in saving Social Security for all instead of for only certain groups we may find an equitable way to insure that people will be okay after a lifetime of working. With a bit of sacrifice children of deceased earners and the disabled will not go hungry. I can’t think of any cause that is more laudable, but then, like my student, I have come to realize how little I actually need. I understand the importance of keeping our safety net intact.

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Thoughts of Flip

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I have not seen him since we moved from our former home. That was eighteen years ago. Nonetheless I still think about him and wonder how he is doing even though I suspect that he is no longer alive. It would be miracle if he were. He was a homeless man who spent his days near the entrance to our neighborhood. He sat on the median constantly flipping the pages of a tattered magazine, seemingly unaware of what was going on around him. Yet he managed to somehow survive year after year. 

I never knew his name, but some people took to calling him Flip, a name with a double meaning depending on whether one was being kind or making fun of him. His skin had come to resemble leather from sitting in the sun all day long, even on the coldest days of winter. Most of us in the neighborhood stopped to give him money now and again. The manager of the gas station near his post mentioned that he often came inside to purchase food and drink with his donations. He also said that the man slept in back of the store near a dumpster. He stored blankets and changes of clothing back there. In the winter he always seemed to have a new jacket to wear. 

I thought it was kind of the manager to be so matter of fact about having a vagrant live on the premises of his business. I suppose he understood that most of us worried about Flip and felt a tiny bit better in knowing that he had a place to sleep at night. We guessed that he also used the restroom inside the store although that was never actually addressed. Nobody ever mentioned wanting to run him away from the front of our neighborhood. Instead we all seemed to have adopted him in some ways even though I never heard of any attempts to find him a permanent home or a better place to sleep. Perhaps we all understood that his state of mind was such that he would never agree to leave his post for a better situation. 

I always wondered what Flip’s real name was. I wanted to know if he had a family somewhere that was looking for him. I was concerned about what might have placed him in such a terrible dilemma. Because he did not talk or indicate that he realized what was happening I don’t suppose anyone ever asked him many questions. He simply survived from day to day. 

I recently heard a segment on NPR that featured stories of homeless folk. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most of them suffer from mental illnesses. They also suffer from countless health issues. Rarely do they receive the medical care that they need. In some places like Austin, Texas, groups of doctors have decided to regularly visit homeless encampments to provide checkups for the populations. They develop teams that provide medical, dental and psychological assistance. Each team travels regularly to certain areas and the results have been extraordinary.   

One of the men that they interviewed was a veteran who suffers from PTSD. At one time he had a good job and appeared to be adjusting well to civilian life until things began to unravel. First he lost his job and then he began drinking to ease his depression. Before long he was a full blown alcoholic who even experimented with drugs. He walked around in a perennial haze, losing everything including his home, his car and his family. Life on the streets became his reality until the team of doctors encountered him and began to treat all of his problems. 

Now this man attests to the success of the medical outreach. After a year he is clean, sober and healthy right down to his teeth. The medical team helped him to find a job and a home as well. They continue to visit him once a month to insure that he continues to progress. With all of the support systems he feels happy and normal once again and looks forward to a bright future. 

It’s unfortunate that programs such as the one in Austin are not copied all over the country. The nameless people that we see under bridges, on street corners, and living in tents are not just nuisances and yet we mostly look away when we see them. Sometimes we even view them with disgust as though we would feel better if they did not exist. At the very least we should do our best to at least try to help them to reclaim their lives. 

I do wish I knew what happened to Flip. I know that all of us should have done more for him, but fears and a lack of knowledge about what might work prevented us from helping him to become well. I’d like to say we did our best, but maybe we should have advocated for programs that do more than just give handouts. I hope that all of the Flips in our nation one day get the services that they need. The Bible admonishes us to minister to them. I wonder what we are waiting for and why we have not made this a priority.

Our War of Words

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Since Thanksgiving I’ve been mostly behaving exactly like I did before the pandemic arrived in my city three years ago. I have not worn a mask in many months now unless I have a medical appointment. I go about my daily routines mostly not thinking about the long stretch of caution and isolation that many of us endured over a very long period of time. I mostly lost contact with humans outside of my family during that time so I was amazed at how I seemed to get back into the swing of things quite easily. 

I’ve enjoyed seeing my students in person again. I find that they their learning accelerates when I am with them instead of just being a face on a screen. The holidays were wonderful with most of my old traditions once more in place. I felt a great deal of relief at finally enjoying those personal contacts that had been missing for so long, and yet now and again I’ll be somewhere and without warning I feel as though I am little more than a fly on the wall. I watch the people around me and if feels uncomfortably strange to be with them again. it is as though we are all forcing ourselves to simply move beyond the traumas and the losses of the past three years as if they never happened. Everything seems the same and yet is also feels terribly different. 

I sometimes wonder if others have the same experience of suddenly sensing that we are not yet as healed as we think we are. Is it just me attempting to reintegrate into the bigger world outside of the confines of my home, or is it possible that we are pretending that everything is fine when it actually is not? There has been so much loss for which we have not properly grieved because it was so overwhelming that it felt better to just keep moving forward without acknowledging the hurt that we were feeling. 

Our collective journey divided us based on our different reactions to the virus. I expected to see a global union of human compassion on display and instead we engaged in an angry argument that has resulted in violence and wars in some cases. It has been disturbing to see how quickly we devolved into a kind of worldwide civil war over our differing points of view. My Pollyanna outlook on life has been shaken and while I have mostly moved past the disappointments that surprised me during the height of Covid, I still sense that residual effects continue. The virus did great harm to good people but it also unveiled the reality that we don’t necessarily work together when times get tough. That has been difficult for me to accept. 

I suppose that we will slowly build back trust and goodwill in our society, but not without effort from all of us. I don’t think that we can just go back to where we once were without effort and a willingness to honestly talk about what happened and why we were so divided. Our true healing will only begin when we are willing to ask ourselves why a national emergency became so political and why we used the pandemic to launch a culture war.   

I always harken back to a metaphorical moment in my life. At the time I had a huge backyard filled with many trees whose branches touched the above ground utility lines that carried electricity to the homes in my neighborhood. While I was at work one day a crew from the power company removed many of the branches and left them in random piles in my yard. After many weeks and entreaties on my part that they come to clean up the mess that they had made I realized that I was going to have to do the hard labor of sawing the huge limbs into smaller segments and binding them for the trash. It was an overwhelming task that I kept avoiding even though I knew it had to be done. 

Then came September 1, 2001, and the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I remember coming home from work that day feeling numb, but also filled with anxious energy. I could not sit in my house. I had to have something constructive to do, so I began to work on the downed limbs in my yard. After a time I had managed to create my first bundle and I took it to the curb, nodding at my neighbors who were in their front yards. None of us said a word because there were no words for that day. Only those brief movements of our heads conveyed our feelings in that moment. 

I returned to my backyard to work on the next pile. Shortly thereafter the man next door came with his tree saw and some twine and began working next to me, again without saying anything. As time went by another and then another neighbor came and before long the onerous task was done even as none of us had spoken a word. It was as though we somehow knew what each person was thinking and utterances were unnecessary. We had all felt the need to do something in that terrible time, something constructive that would unify us in the fear and grief and anger that we were feeling. We came together as neighbors just as we would seem to do as a nation, but soon enough everything had changed even when we tried to pretend that it had not.

We have ignored the many wounds to our nation for too long. The unity of Sept. 11, 2001 has become a war of words, a choosing of sides, an unwillingness to work calmly and quietly together. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to face the task at hand and join in the effort to work together again to end our war of words.

Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny

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I’ll be teaching some financial literacy lessons in the coming weeks. There are always some students who are shocked to learn that they will not keep every dime of the salaries they earn, nor will the cost of an item they purchase at a store be based only on the listed price. When we calculate payroll taxes, sales taxes and income taxes they begin to realize how their earnings will slowly decrease from what they thought they might be. They quickly learn that purchasing a twenty dollar item will require more money than a single twenty dollar bill.

The mere mention of taxes in polite conversation often elicits groans and even anger or dread. Taxes without fair representation in Parliament led to a very famous revolution in the British colonies that would one day become the United States of America. The art of supporting a government with taxes of one sort or another has never quite been mastered to the satisfaction of either the citizens or the politicians. Much of the disagreement among the American people centers on how to most fairly create taxing structures that will provide adequate funding without placing undue burden on a particular group of taxpayers. Sadly our country has yet to find a system that seems to work for everyone, so ideas for change pop up regularly. 

We Americans pay a variety of federal, state and local taxes. On the national level income mostly determines how much each individual will pay. Of course there are a variety of tax laws that allow deductions and rebates. Often the wealthiest among us have so many legal ways of eluding taxes that they pay very little or none at all while the middle class seems to bear the brunt of funding through taxation. 

The dreaded tax season drains the earnings of the average taxpayer on a yearly basis. In places like Texas where I live there are also sales taxes that add to the cost of non food or prescription items as well as property taxes that pay the local bills. We tend not to notice how much sales taxes pull from our coffers until we purchase a high dollar item, but if we were to save all of our receipts and calculate the total sales taxes we paid for a year we might be shocked at the additional drain on our incomes.

So how should we pay for all of the services provided by our federal, state and local governments? Which kind of taxes provide the most funding? Which taxes are the most fair? Who should be getting breaks on their taxes, only the poorest among us or everyone? Should the wealthy be paying less than the middle class? These are questions that we all pose and consider and even study. Somehow there seem to be problems with every type of taxation that we try, but we wonder if one way is better for all than another. 

In his bid for leading his Republican party Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy agreed to bring a bill called the Fair Tax to the floor for a vote in the House of Representatives. Essentially the idea behind this bill is to eliminate income taxes and substitute a national thirty percent sales tax as the mechanism for revenue. The IRS as we have known it would no longer exist. Yearly payments of income taxes would be gone. Citizens would pay the thirty percent tax as they purchased items including food and prescriptions all year long. If an item was listed for one hundred dollars they would pay an additional thirty dollars in taxes. Sounds simple, but maybe it’s not.

Those who tout this idea insist that it would place the onus of how much each person pays to the government each year on their individual spending habits. They insist that each citizen would have more control over their incomes by deciding how much they are willing to purchase thus determining how much tax they pay. Unfortunately those with lesser funds would be disproportionately affected by such a regressive tax and the richest would still have shelters for their businesses that would likely result in tremendously lower proportion of taxes for them. Even with rebates for the poor this kind of tax would actually make it more expensive for all but the richest to buy their most basic needs. This kind of tax would no doubt have the worst impact on the elderly whose incomes are generally fixed. I even wonder if such a tax would create a black market for goods and services unlike any we have ever before seen.

There is little chance that this bill will take effect because it would also have to be approved by the Senate, which is unlikely, and it is certain the President Biden has already insisted that he will veto this bill if it were to pass. Still, even the symbolic passing of such a bill in one branch of the government is a wakeup call for all of us. We may need some changes to our taxing systems but this plan is a non-starter for so many reasons. The Brookings Institution and other reputable financial researchers have all balked at the idea that such a plan will either provide the needed funding to run the government or the fairness that it portends to seek for the American taxpayer. We all need to be vigilant when such plans are proposed and note who is backing them when we vote in elections. It’s important that we contact our representatives to voice our opinions on issues that will hit us in the pocketbook. If we allow a small group of radicals to determine our financial fate, then we are once again victims of taxation without representation.

I hate paying taxes as much as anyone. Like our Founding Fathers I balk at unfairness in the way that tax laws are sometimes written. Nonetheless, I shudder at the thought of allowing a hair brained idea like the so called Fair Tax bill to even be considered. Let your voice be heard. Make sure you are being represented. Our ancestors died for our rights. We should always protect them.  

Living Together In Harmony

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When my father-in-law came to live with us last summer we had to make many changes to the way we lived. Ours had been an empty nest for almost thirty years except for the year and a half when my mother lived in our home. Her stay was barely disruptive because she settled into our upstairs guest room and we were still working full time back then. Our encounters with her were rather brief given that we shared dinner each day and then she usually retired to her room to listen to the radio or read her Bible. Additionally my brothers took her on outings several times each week and agreed to provide us respite whenever we wanted to travel. All in all it was quite comfortable. 

When my father-n-law arrived he was unable to climb stairs or walk without a cane. He needed to sit in the shower and have a special seat for the toilet. We knew we would have to surrender our downstairs master bedroom and bath to accommodate his needs. We hurriedly relocated to the room where my mother had stayed during her sojourn with us. In the meantime we retro-fitted the master bathroom to serve his needs and even created an area to house his computer.

Even the configuration of our kitchen changed as we made space on the countertops for his medications and boosted one of the dining chairs with a cushion. We filled the refrigerator with items that he liked to eat and drink like Silk almond milk, Glucerna, and bottled water. We even altered our schedules which had been rather loose and flexible since retiring a decade ago. 

You can almost set a clock by my father-n-law’s habits. Unlike my husband and I he regularly rises early in the morning and goes to bed no later than nine at night, sometimes even earlier. He has lunch at noon and expects a glass of wine with a small snack at five followed by dinner between five thirty and six. Then he enjoys watching a bit of television before retiring for the night. 

In truth my husband and I had floated through our days without any great plans since we finished our last days working at full time jobs. There was no telling when we would rise, go to bed or eat. We set out on random trips at the drop of a hat. We were spoiled by at least ten years of being co-captains of our own ship with very little responsibility for others. We had also grown older ourselves and set in our unplanned ways. Changing so quickly was like trying to teach old dogs new tricks, but somehow we have managed to reset our course and settle into a compromise for living.

In many ways having an upstairs area has been our life saver. Our bedroom is tiny compared to the one we once had, but it is quite comfortable and we only use it for sleep and storing our clothes. The bathroom is tiny as well, but no smaller that the ones that we used when we were young. We only need the basics to take care of our needs, so that has not been a problem. We even transformed a little nook upstairs to hold a couch and a small television that we can watch after my father-in-law has gone to bed without disturbing him. It’s quite comfortable. 

We have adjusted and my father-in-law has grown quite strong. Now he ascends the stairs each day to walk on our treadmill. He spends time on his computer and enjoys the magnificent view from the window of his room. Of course he still rises early but he eventually insisted on preparing his own breakfast. He now does quite well after a few bad starts that burned food and filled the air with smoke and a bit of concern on my part. He takes care of his own lunch as well. It is only his evening cocktail hour and formal dinner time that forces us into his schedule and I have resigned myself to temporarily abandoning our free floating ways. 

We have found a steady routine that works for him and that we are flexible enough to accept. I miss the luxury of spending dreary or cold days lounging in my pajamas while I write my blogs and read the news. I mostly have to get dressed because I have not adapted to the idea of being around my father-in-law in my bed clothes, mostly because he arrives each morning fully dressed with his shirt tucked into his trousers and a belt around his waist. It just does not seem right to be informal around such a formal person. 

My sacrifices are rather small and I’m happy that I have been able to make this work. I talk constantly with God asking him to give me patience. I want to be nice and there are some days when everything makes me grouchy. I have a tendency to think too much about my new restrictions that no longer allow me to wander off on an unplanned trip on a sunny day. I know that as well as he is doing, my father-in-law now needs someone to be with him everyday. It is a huge responsibility but I have to remind myself that it is a blessing that we are able to do this for him. 

Without those honest conversations with God I suspect that I would not be doing well at all. I have had to be flexible and also learn how to forgive myself when I grow weary. I know that my anxieties and complaints are nothing compared to the problems faced by most of the people in the world. I’ve taught myself how to just take one day at a time and enjoy each moment  with my father-n-law while I can. I don’t know when travel will be in my future again, but I sense that somehow we will figure that out as well. For now we’ve all found a way of living together in harmony and it feels nice.