Guest Editorial: What role for government?

This week’s writer is David Sharpe, a former Bristol selectman and a member of the Vermont House of Representatives.
As I listened to the Dalai Lama speak Saturday he mentioned a Hawaiian saying: “Your blood is my blood, your bones are my bones, your happiness is my happiness and your suffering is my suffering.”
This saying resonated with me and reminded me of the philosophies of President Franklin Roosevelt and President Johnson. They wanted to encourage all Americans to achieve middle-class status. I recall the phrase “a chicken in every pot.”
Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, I believe we are in the midst of a concerted effort to reverse the Great Society and the New Deal role of government in our lives. In my lifetime we have moved from a position of “we are all in this together” and “I am my brother’s keeper” to one of “you’ve got to make it on your own.” The efforts to reduce Social Security and dismantle Medicare are nothing more than saying to our senior citizens and the families that support them that we don’t care if you suffer in your golden years, it’s you own fault for not putting enough away while you were in your earning years.
The excuse for this change in attitude is that our nation is deeply in debt. Let’s be clear: There is enough money in our country — it’s just in the hands of a few individuals, banks and corporations who are hoarding it for their own happiness and don’t give a damn about the rest of us.
Some of us have vacation homes, pleasure boats, ATV’s, snowmobiles, fancy bicycles, ski passes, cruise trips, hiking in the mountains, going to professional sports games. And yet we find plenty to complain about regarding the burden of high taxes. And you know what? I sympathize. My father, a modestly paid pastor of his local church, was able to raise four of us kids. Only when we went to college did Mom have to go to work so we could graduate debt free. We had a summer camp on a lake, and he was able to take a month’s vacation so we could all enjoy the wonderful summer. When he retired he had a defined benefit retirement plan along with Social Security and still managed to leave a small nest egg in his estate.
How will that stack up against the modestly paid workers of today? Today, in most instances, it takes two parents working to afford to raise a family, it’s nearly impossible for a middle-class family to pay for their child’s (let alone children’s) college education, and retirement plans have nearly all gone to a defined contribution plan where you are on your own to fund your retirement (have you kept track of the stock market over the last 10 years?). Families are left with the uncomfortable knowledge that they can’t provide for their children the same level of financial support that their parents provided for them. This is a reality that brings frustration, anger and resentment to many middle-class families.
This resentment comes out in comments and concerns about those who are receiving benefits from government programs. We have all heard about the individuals and families that have lived off government assistance for years. I passed a home of a poor family that I worked with in 1968 that is still in a ramshackle home living off government assistance. And what about the wealthy that have had several failed businesses (President George W. Bush and pitcher Curt Shilling come to mind) where government programs have bailed them out and many wealthy  individuals have built fantastic fortunes on government subsidies and tax advantages. Are they not also guilty of milking the system? How is it less valid for a poor person to find advantages in government programs that help feed their families than it is for wealthy individuals to take advantage of tax breaks?
I came to Vermont in 1968 as a VISTA volunteer, after listening to President Kennedy proclaim at his inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Many followed that message and many have seen that their efforts have not eradicated poverty. Indeed, we have more people on food stamps today than ever before. It’s true that we have not been successful in reducing the numbers of citizens living in poverty, but, I would argue, we have done a relatively good job of getting people ready to leave poverty. What we really need are decent wages and decent employment benefits, like vacations and retirement plans, so that our citizens can once again see the value in participating in our great society.
So, my question is, shall we continue to believe that there is a significant role for government to help our citizens grow to their greatest potential, support those who cannot succeed in today’s world, and provide a dignified financial retirement; or shall we leave everyone to make it on their own and follow nature’s dictum that only the strong survive? If we believe in the former we have a lot of work to do to reform our tax policy, increase educational opportunities, create more effective anti-poverty programs, and most of all find a way for our working citizens to earn a livable wage. If it’s the latter, I am greatly saddened for our great experiment called America.

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