Montana Viewpoint


September 15, 2003

For two centuries there has been an unwritten promise that one generation of Americans would take care of the following generation. I remember vividly my friend Jess Nelson saying to me, “I don’t worry about myself, I worry about those who come after me.” Jess was a machinist in Thompson Falls who had grown up on a hard-scrabble homestead in Armell’s Coulee in Rosebud County. He went through the Depression, volunteered for service in World War II, and ran a business for 40 years. He knew what he was talking about.

Nowhere is that promise to future generations better illustrated than in the creation of America’s system of public education. That promise is not only for a bright future for the individual American, but for America as a whole. Thomas Jefferson knew this: “…talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth, or other accidental condition.”

Jefferson also believed fervently that democracy could only be safeguarded by an educated citizenry which would serve to check unbridled government power. “Every government degenerates when left to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories, and to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree…”

After the Great Depression of the dirty ’30s, we saw a twist on that promise from one generation to the next, and that was the Social Security Act of 1935. Now, we had the promise of one American generation taking care of the generation before…the retired workers of America. It is, by the way, a program that was based on Montana’s old age pension program, the first in the nation, which was signed in to law by Governor Joseph Dixon in 1923.

It had a neat symmetry to it. One generation paid taxes to provide an education for America’s children, and that educated generation turned around and paid taxes to provide for a secure old age for the preceding generation. One hand washes the other, so to speak.

America was not the first nation to offer universal public education (Prussia was, in the early 1700s), nor the first to provide a social retirement system (Germany, in 1881, was the first, and the first to provide universal healthcare in 1883), but when we did, we made our nation greater. They were acts filled with hope and optimism, and culminated in America becoming the leader of the world. Something I doubt was ever foreseen by our nation’s founders.

I mention these promises because I believe that my generation of Americans will be the first to abandon them. And I believe that to do so will serve our nation poorly, both economically and morally. I believe this, for instance, because too often I hear people say, “I don’t have any kids in school, so why should I pay to educate somebody else’s kids?” (Of course, the simple answer is, “someone paid for yours.”)

I see this gloomy forecast reflected in such things as the dramatically increasing cost of tuition at public colleges, shutting out those who would benefit the most, and in the “privatization” of Social Security and Medicare, not to mention the devastating effect that the rapidly escalating U. S. Government deficit will have on our ability to pay those benefits.

America’s Social Security system was never meant to be a risk laden investment program that takes workers’ contributions and makes them grow. It is a direct payment from the working generation to support the retired generation—their parents’ and other people’s parents. Nor was the money in that program designed to be used by the federal government to run the country, as it is now doing.

A quality free educational system and a healthy social security program are mutually beneficial, and harming one will harm the other. The better educated the work force, the better the wages, and the larger the social security contribution. The wages of a nation of sales “associates” and fast food franchise employees will not long support the Social Security System.

Likewise, the health and housing needs of a nation of poor elderly as a result of a failed Social Security program will put a terrific strain on America’s economy and therefore our ability to pay for a universal, quality, free public education. It goes round and round.

If for no other reason than sheer self interest, it’s to our benefit to support free public education and a secure retirement program. It wouldn’t be much of a life without them. But it wouldn’t be much of an America without them, either. So we can look at all this in the stark economic terms of “what’s in it for me?” or we can look at it as the promise and obligation for us as Americans to take care of each other. We’re Americans, that’s what we do, and we can be very good at it when we want to.

We can gripe all we like about taxes and government programs, but we’re at the top of the world pecking order, and we’re there because of those taxes and programs, not in spite of them. It’s the dues we pay to be the world’s most powerful nation, and we’d better keep them current.

We can pick up the tab for those kids later, or, for a lot less money, we can give the least among us a low cost decent education. It’s up to us.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620