Golden years, silver tea, and safety nets

A friend of mine had a grandfather who supervised the payroll at a large company long ago. People who knew him say this man was a paragon of virtue when it came to making sure the employees were treated fair and square on every payday. But he also believed that once wages were disbursed, workers should take full responsibility for their financial security. In his view, honest labor and thrifty habits were basic elements of the free-enterprise system. Nobody should expect any money unless they earned it. He opposed company pension plans, and was thoroughly dismayed by the fiscal structure and benefits of Social Security.

I wonder how many people hold the same views now? The debate about changing Social Security is part of a larger question: What obligation, if any, do Americans feel toward fellow citizens who need help? Note, I didn't say "less fortunate," "disadvantaged," or some other term that might be construed as evidence I'm promoting my own brand of social engineering. I just want to know how much concern people have for what happens outside their own households.

Critics of government assistance programs often say they do more harm than good by creating a cycle of dependency for recipients and a gigantic bureaucracy that demoralizes the rest of society by taking money away from us and creating a welfare state of slackers.

The term I prefer to describe our current situation is "safety-net culture." It has lots of problems, but I also know what life was like before safety nets, because my dad gave me abundant testimony from his 1920s boyhood near San Francisco - it was no Norman Rockwell painting. His father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, so they did have a house. But one neighbor lived in a tent on a vacant lot and another was known for owning only one pair of overalls, which his wife laundered in a tub on the stove on Saturdays while he sat by, wrapped in a blanket.

My dad's family often ate boiled rice for breakfast. The beverage of choice was tea, but if that ran out they made "silver tea" - hot water with milk and sugar. Money for college wasn't in the family budget. My dad got his degree thanks to the GI Bill.

Decades of safety-net culture have removed a lot of anxiety from our lives but we're still not close to Utopia. Amid all the Social Security debate about aging baby boomers and shrinking worker contributions, I'm most compelled by this statistic: Close to 20 percent of retirees get all of their income from Social Security. Should that number be a source of national pride or embarrassment? Or perhaps a better question: How do you honestly feel about drinking silver tea during your golden years?

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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