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If Only We Could Get The Gummint Off Our Backs…

December 27, 2010

Living in small-town America,  Way Out West, we have this sacred Western Tradition of Rugged Independence and Self-Reliance. Or at least the undying myth about it. There’s a  lot of talk about it around here. How government is the problem and if we could just get the ‘gummint’ to butt out, everything would be rosy–and prosperous, with good jobs for all who want them. The most recent one of several neighbors of mine to tell me that was one of many retirees who live here.  Of course, he worked many years first for the city and then county government so now he’s got a pretty nice  Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) pension coming in every month. Between that, and the paid health care plan that comes with it, plus Social Security and Medicare as back-ups, he’s pretty well set to maintain his accustomed standard of living for the rest of his life. He and his wife have a time-share in Cancun and are planning on getting in a couple of weeks in Hawaii in the late spring.

That started me thinking about the experiences of my extended family and my friends. My family is almost entirely made up of working class and lower-middle-class  folks.  Living in Oakland,  my Dad worked in the private sector and planned to retire at 62 but died of overwork at 61.  Not long before his death, my mother,who hadn’t worked outside the home since before her marriage at 21,  some 35 years earlier,  re-entered the labor force as a secretary-receptionist for an  Alameda County agency.  Working ten or twelve years there allowed her to retire at 66 with a good  California PERA pension & comprehensive  paid health care coverage through Kaiser .  Because of that she lived comfortably in retirement another 19 years until her death at 85.  She enjoyed two month-long trips to Scotland, (her father’s birthplace) during that time, and a few cruises around Alaska and the Caribbean.  The Scotsman,( her father, my maternal grandfather), retired at age 60 and lived on a pension for almost as along as he’d worked, dying just short of his 88th birthday. So he collected a pension for almost 28 years! How did he do that? Oh, that’s right. He worked for the railroad (Southern Pacific, as a regional signal superintendent)and was covered by the government-created Railroad Retirement program.  That’s what allowed him a comfortable and secure  retirement. Oh sure, he owned his own home outright before retirement and saved some money over his working life, but not that much. When they died, within two weeks of each other, my grandparents’ estate totaled about $25,000.

(He liked  to say, “The only thing tighter than a tightwad Scotsman is a generous Dutchman”)

Then my memory roamed further…..there was my mother’s sister, my Aunt Louise. She retired from a long career working for the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools.  Those 40 or so years of public service earned her a comfortable pension.  Uncle  Charles, her husband,  was also able to retire because…oh, yes! That’s right. Now I remember: because he too had a government pension, having by design spent the last 10-15 years of his working  life laying asphalt on road crews,  after working a variety of jobs in the private sector.  Like other relatives, when he got to age 50 or so and started thinking about advancing age and wanting to eventually retire, he decided to switch to the public sector, the only field with trustworthy, decent pension plans that made retirement for a blue-collar worker a realistic possibility.  My mother’s only brother, for whom I was named, still alive at 89, was able to retire at 60 because….well, because he was a Cal-Trans highway engineer,  a career employee with the State of California. And while  my mother’s only other sister didn’t really have a career before her relatively early death from cancer at 53,  her widowed husband enjoyed retirement thanks to his decades of employment for the federal civil service.

I haven’t mentioned the uncles and multiple  cousins whose careers as public school teachers entitled them to decent pensions and good  health care plans through the government-sponsored, government-regulated, and government-guaranteed retirement plans. Or those who are employees of the US Postal Service, or the social workers, also government employees.  Many of these folks are also military veterans and therefore eligible for medical and prescription drug benefits through the  government-created, government-financed, government-regulated VA–or is the VA  just  another “goddamn gummint give-away program”?

I think this–my family’s experience– is fairly typical of working-class/lower-middle-class American families.  Hell, we’re (mostly) white folks, law-abiding, tax-paying,  often church-going people ,  pretty skilled, hard-working, usually steadily employed folks who were raised to see themselves as mainstream Americans, to  believe in the American Dream and  who like to live orderly, stable lives.

Let’s face facts: the  ONLY people from this level of society able to retire and not live their later years either dependent on their adult children,  or  in cat-food poverty and deprivation, or, alternatively, to work until the day they die of exhaustion, are those who have  government created, government-regulated, government-insured & government- guaranteed pension plans (civilian or military) with health care plans attached. If they had to depend on Private Enterprise and the tender mercies of the Free-Market Capitalist System, they would’ve been worked to death, then chewed up and spit out by The System, to  spend their old age like characters in a Dickens novel, underfed, dependent on charity, and wishing they were already dead.

I hope you will think about the implications of these facts.

Let’s not fall for the right-wing propaganda (from Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc.) that government is always the problem and Free Market Capitalism is always the answer. That is contrary to contemporary fact, and contrary to historical reality. 

UPDATE: The day after I posted this, I found an Associated Press  story that examines the extent & the reasons why private sector retirement is disappearing for the working and middle classes. It’s  worth reading. I found it on, though I’m sure many others picked it up off the AP wire: “Baby Boomers Near 65 With Retirements in Jeopardy” by Dave Carpenter.











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