His was not an easy childhood on that dairy farm. On the coldest mornings, there were chores to be done, and getting to school required tromping through the elements. During the Great Depression, times were more than merely tough, especially before President Franklin Roosevelt’s rural electrification lighted the countryside.
Who was this man? My father-in-law Bert, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants who settled in the flatlands, the Minnesota prairie. His forebears, like so many Americans of the time, worked with animals and the land.
But Bert’s life was different. When the war came, he deployed to Navy ships in the Pacific and afterwards came back to his home state and went to college.
His education, at a small college in Minnesota, would never have been possible if not for the G.I. Bill. The legislation was conceived by Democrats, but its final shape was affected by the American Legion, which pushed to make it highly inclusive. Countering those who wanted it to cover a few years of college for the most academically qualified, the Legion’s efforts opened it up, and it became extremely generous. Ultimately, it was a foundation of America’s mid-20th century economic boom and built the broad middle-class.
Bert went into business — insurance, to be precise. His ethic was independence, and he worked for himself, making enough money to raise his boys with his vivacious wife. She played piano, volunteered for Barry Goldwater and organized their social life, the bridge games and trips to the lake. He was a quiet guy with a sweet smile, enjoying and fretting over the teams he followed, especially the Vikings.
But the unforeseen struck. His wife, the mother of his children, came down with multiple sclerosis in her forties. She needed home care and then nursing home care. Bert couldn’t work as many hours as before. After her death, he rebuilt the business.
When he grew sick himself, he was by that time eligible for Medicare. But as his health declined, and he needed daily care from trained medical professionals, his money ran out. In a nursing home and without resources, Medicaid covered the costs.
As I watched the national party conventions, I thought of Bert. Republicans put on their stage a series of people who repeated, “We built that,” a claim that government has nothing to do with their success. One thing that was odd was that it was based on an out-of-context statement by President Barack Obama that stressed that people who do well work hard and benefit from public schools and infrastructure.
Perhaps even odder was that, while decrying government, so many credited its contributions to accomplishments. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mentioned that his dad went to college on the G.I. Bill. Vice presidential nominee House Republican Paul Ryan said his widowed mom had to take the public bus to college classes. (Left unspoken was Ryan’s use of Social Security survivors’ benefits to pay his college tuition.)
But the biggest contradiction was between the policies Republicans proposed and their emphasis on opportunity. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Ryan want to reduce the federal government to such an extent that the programs that promote opportunity would be devastated.
Moreover, they would also cut benefits from Medicare that Obamacare added – closing the prescription drug donut hole and preventive care with no co-pay. This would go into effect immediately, and those under 55 would have a different system involving vouchers.
Before the 2008 recession, 36 percent of Maine’s Medicare recipients received Medicaid. Disabled children and adults also receive Medicaid, as do poor people, many who work for a living. Romney would cut funding by a third and allow governors to reshape eligibility. Gov. Paul LePage has targeted Maine’s version of Medicaid for cuts.
Bert’s story is the American story, or at least one telling. He gave to his country, and it gave to him. He raised a family and was part of his community. He paid his taxes and voted. He was a good man and good citizen.
Bert’s work and self-discipline were necessary for his success. But his life’s path and last years could have been much different. Government programs provided a young man from the prairie opportunity and an old one health care and security.