The Fabric of Our Lives
Northern Democrat, edited by Roger Roy - Caribou, Maine (April 1999 issue)
December 1995 - January, 1996
Used to be, we had communities.

Used to be, the bottom line was not the only line, and big business was a valuable part of the community.

Used to be, there was a three-way unspoken contract between government, business, and working people: Everyone does a good job and we all prosper.

Used-to-be was before the Republican dismantling of the fabric of our lives.

Which reminds me. Used to be, it wasn't a swear word to be a Republican. And as a Democrat, it pains me to see the transformation.

Frankly, I thought Republicans were smart enough to understand how everything was connected to everything else. I thought they understood that you can't encourage our biggest industries to export factories and jobs, thus inducing major and permanent layoffs, and then cut job retraining, tighten up severely on student loans, cut back on low-income housing, eliminate the Earned Income Credit, refuse to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and limit welfare to two years, without suffering major, major consequences.

But no, they are behaving like a novice knitter, blithely pulling out a stray thread here and there because they don't like the color or texture, oblivious to the fact that as a result the entire fabric is about to come apart.

Remember the phrase: "There, but for the grace of God, go I"? That's been replaced by: "It's my money, I earned it, and what right does the government have to take any of it away from me?"

They don't seem to understand that desperate people do desperate things.

I think it's high time we redefined the implied warranty in this Contract with America.

My concept of government is a system set up to help those who truly cannot help themselves, and to provide the rest of us with the opportunities to reach our full potential. The current Contract doesn't do any of that. It's time to renegotiate.

Let's start with welfare.

SSI payments now are available to widows and widowers under Social Security until their children are adults, no questions asked. Randy Weaver gets it, thanks to the FBI shooting and killing his wife. And he will get SSI until the infant she was holding in her arms at the time of her death becomes an adult.

But under the welfare programs, women (usually) whose partners left for reasons other than death are treated as pariahs. The mother is in the pickle because the father is walking around, refusing to own up to his responsibilities to his children. But it's she, not he, who is the target of Republican wrath.

I firmly believe that people should expect to be responsible parents when they decide to bring children into the world. On the other hand, I recognize that life is full of the unanticipated. I also believe that people need to understand the consequences to their actions, and that some men in these circumstances have been getting away with irresponsibility far too long.

Did you catch the report last week of a man who called the cops to arrest his wife because she had left him with their three kids a few days before, and they were running around unfed and with diapers unchanged and the reason he said they were in that condition was because that wasn't his job? And he wanted the cops to arrest his wife for child neglect?

I propose that Aid to Families with Dependent Children immediately broaden its definition of family to include the fathers, whether they are in the home or not. Any work requirements, paid or unpaid, placed on welfare mothers should also be placed on the fathers of the children, whether those fathers are living with the mother or out on the beach in California.

That way, fathers would not be penalizing their families if they stuck around, and we would be reinforcing the concept that men have a responsibility to their children.

Of course, the simplest way to get most people off welfare is to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.

Rush Limbaugh, ranting against any increase in the minimum wage, charges, "A full 30 percent, 30 percent ladies and gentlemen, of minimum wage workers are teenagers. TEENAGERS."

I'll grant that he may be right. What he didn't mention, however, is that, by his own figures, that means 70 percent of the people earning the minimum wage are NOT teenagers.

Rush is also making the assumption that all teenagers live at home, which I think is a curious assumption. I was married at 18, and before I got out of the teenager category, I had lived and paid rent in two different states, held jobs in two different hospitals (both of which were exempt from minimum wage rules, by the way), and had seen my then-husband off to one of his two tours of duty in Vietnam. But I was still a teenager.

Our historical family contract had the father providing for his entire family with one job. If minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $6.50 per hour. That wage alone would get a lot of people off welfare.

Families at the bottom of the wage scale with kids at home can now get Earned Income Credit. But a parent earning between $9,000 and $11,000 a year (between $4.50 and $5.50 an hour for full-time work) might soon not be eligible to get the $2,038 boost from the government for one kid, or $2,528 for two, because EIC is also on the chopping block.

That boost, if you look at it from another angle, amounts to a subsidy of between $1.02 and $1.26 per hour for those businesses which are paying their workers between $4.50 and $5.50 per hour. That means that right now, America's taxpayers are picking up the slack for all those businesses paying less than a living wage.

Rather than gut the EIC, I suggest we stop rewarding businesses for paying below life-sustaining wages, and raise the minimum wage to $6.50. I don't know about you, but I'd rather pay a few cents more for a hamburger produced by people making a living wage, than subsidize McDonald's profit margin obliquely through my tax dollar.

On to Social Security.

First, paying in.

The Social Security tax provides no security for low-income people when they have to pay from the first dollar earned. A few years back, a friend trying to survive on the $5,000 a year he made from mowing lawns asked me if he was reading the forms correctly, and did he, as a self-employed person, really owe the government $750 for Social Security?

He sure did.

I've never asked, but I'm pretty sure he didn't file a return that year. He couldn't afford to.

People simply trying to survive below the poverty level should not be forced to become outlaws because of our tax code. Our country is better than that.

I say we should start the FICA collection clock ticking at the same point income tax kicks in - after exemptions and deductions. Not only that, I would raise the starting point for both to the poverty line.

Is that a radical concept or what?

Today, my friend would have been helped by the expansion of EIC to low-income single adults. That inclusion, passed just a few years ago, was designed to cancel out those very Social Security taxes, so my friend's tax liability would have been zero, he would have gotten credit for working those quarters, and he wouldn't have to be hiding from the law. Guess what? Single adults are about to be removed from eligibility for EIC by Republicans who can't conceive of someone in this country trying to live on $5,000 a year.

At the other end of the scale, you realize, is the FICA cap. Right now we stop collecting Social Security payroll taxes at $60,600. Lee Iacocca, when he was making millions as the head of Chrysler, paid as much in Social Security taxes every year as one of his midlevel auto executives.

Yet, we hand out Social Security checks to retirees over age 70 regardless of their retirement income.

I'd like to flip that situation on its ear. I suggest we impose the FICA tax on income starting at the poverty line, and hand out Social Security checks only to those earning less than $60,600 annually in retirement income.

I don't buy the line that Social Security recipients earned that money, and should get those checks regardless of their retirement income. Social Security is insurance. That's what the 'I' in FICA stands for. The money we pay in FICA taxes is an insurance premium on income. Just like our auto or homeowner's insurance, Social Security is designed to be there if we need it. But if we are lucky enough not to need it, we shouldn't expect our premiums back.

On to labor.

Many workers wouldn't have jobs without companies, but companies also wouldn't have 'product' without workers.

Collective bargaining establishes an equal partnership between labor and management. But that partnership is not equal if one side has no clout, and a labor union has no clout if its members can simply be replaced if they strike.

To re-establish that equal partnership, the Striker Replacement Bill has been repeatedly introduced in Congress, and should have been passed years ago.

Some will say it is not in our best interest to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. I agree. But it seems to me that people on opposite sides of the picket line have different opinions as to who is the goose.

Inertia is the concept that things continue on the same unless acted upon by some external force.

I think too many of us have been counting on inertia to keep our town of Mayberry the way it was when we grew up. But external forces are at work - the Republican Congress being only one of them - and they are sending our society off in directions we cannot afford to abide.

We've got to overcome our own inertia and get to work.

I took a step in that direction when I ran for Congress last year, and I'm thinking about running for U.S. Senate next year.

What are you thinking about doing?