December 19, 2012

In My Opinion: History lessons for deficit reduction


---- — In the coming weeks, the president and Congress will make crucial decisions on how to address the fiscal deficit.

I knew many options would be presented, but never did I expect the deficit reduction to be borne on the shoulders of the most needy of our citizens or that cuts in the very foundation of our civilized society (Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid) would be under consideration.

Because Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid over time have reduced the poverty rate of seniors by an impressive 75 percent, I naturally thought these programs would rightfully be exempt and preserved unchanged.

Now that I can clearly see the writing on the wall, it literally takes my breath away that we are about to impose a “culture of cruelty” upon our poor and elderly citizens. They unfairly are about to bear the burden for a financial mess they had no part in creating.

What is about to happen over the next few weeks is a watershed moment for America. The Civil War, 9/11 and similar momentous events are moments that established a new direction for our country. Likewise, the “attack” on Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid will change the course of American history once again — and send us down a path that truly will not be a proud moment in our history.

America has a tradition of helping those in need. We look out for and lift up those less fortunate than ourselves. In our lifetime, we remember John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and, most recently, the humanitarian relief efforts for Katrina, Joplin and Sandy.

We have always asked ourselves, “What kind of a country do we want to be?”... and have always answered that question with the positive philosophy that those among us who are most fortunate have an American obligation to help those in need. Dismembering the safety net (Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid) would be a startling repudiation of the essence of this moral “giving” American character.

The deficit issue must be addressed, and there are countless ways to accomplish this task. The list is overwhelming if we have the desire to look. However, these other solutions are often protected by the rich and powerful and their Washington lobbyists. The poor and elderly, dependent on the safety net, are easier targets since in today’s political arena who will risk re-election to champion their hopes and dreams? Or, more pointedly, their survival.

Unfortunately, many very conservative Republicans have always had the desire to dismantle FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society social programs. Their motto is, “Everyone should stand up by themselves,” that government assistance (unless it is corporate welfare) is unnecessary, creating weak, lazy, dependent people.

This is not a criticism of the Republican Party. They truly believe government has a limited role to play in our lives and, therefore, providing programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid represents an over-reach by the federal bureaucracy.

So the question comes down to simply this: “What kind of a country do we want to be? A country where we truly are our brother’s keeper with Medicaid protected and earned benefits like Medicare and Social Security preserved or a country fashioned in the late philosopher Ayn Rand’s extreme conservative vision, whereby, there is no moral code, only a rigid “me first” philosophy, a country where everyone is on their own with no social or moral responsibility, a philosophy that preaches the poor and seniors should be “free” of government dependency, thereby, giving everyone the opportunity to make it on their own or be “free” to go to economic hell.

Rejecting this “go it alone” philosophy, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, addressing Congress just a few days before his death, said: “The moral test of government is how that government treats

those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Hopefully, by keeping Medicare, Social Security and Medicare unchanged, we can reject the “culture of cruelty” and not fail Sen. Humphrey’s moral test.

Carl Chilson has history degrees from Union College and SUNY Plattsburgh. He taught American history at St. John’s Academy and Clinton Community College. After a 40-year career in education, he recently retired from CCC, where he was assistant in continuing education and coordinator of the Adult Learner’s College Entry Program.