Updated on 04.15.13

Reader Mailbag: Debt Ceiling Thoughts

Trent Hamm

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Guilt for every little purchase
2. Handling partner without money skills
3. Auto insurance challenges
4. Handling elderly relative in decline
5. Preparing for a growing relationship
6. Handling student loan repayment progress
7. Used car decisions
8. Partner with terrible credit
9. Housing choices in expensive area
10. Gencon thoughts

For once, I’m going to break my stance against politics and offer up a few thoughts about the debt ceiling issue.

After watching the debt ceiling debacle of the past month and doing some research of my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that virtually everyone involved with the negotiation is much more interested in furthering their political ambitions than solving America’s problems. This goes for Obama, Boehner, Reid, McConnell, and virtually everyone else involved with it.

The root of the problem is pretty obvious if you look at our federal budget. Our entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – are simply unsustainable. If we continue them as-is, our nation will go bankrupt.

Social Security created a “retirement age” of 65 at a time when the life expectancy of the average American was 63. Today, the life expectancy of the average American is approaching 80. Even worse, each generation now is smaller than the one before it, whereas back then generations were growing larger.

Programs like Pell grants are tiny in comparison to things like Social Security. When you’re speaking about the budget and spending more than a word or two about Pell grants, you’re missing the boat on solving our nation’s real problems.

The solution is also pretty obvious, but it takes a lot of political courage to do it. They simply have to restrict these programs. In simplest terms, this means raising the age requirement for Medicare and Social Security and lowering the income requirement for Medicaid.

We don’t have to do this all at once. It can be graduated in slowly, as they did in the 1980s when they raised the entrance age for Social Security a bit. Someone who is 60 today won’t have the carpet pulled out from under them – they may just have to wait until 63 for the first level of Social Security and 68 for the highest level of Social Security. For someone in their early 30s (like me), it might mean waiting until age 75 for the first level of Social Security and 82 for the highest level of Social Security – or even higher. I am absolutely fine with this if it means getting our nation’s financial house in order. When you start running numbers like that, Social Security quickly becomes sustainable and our budget concerns look far less scary.

Show me a politician with the courage to work directly to make this type of thing happen (not just pretty speeches, but actual legislation) and I’ll show you someone who will vote for that politician.

Q1: Guilt for every little purchase
Here’s my specific situation: I’m a recent college grad, living at home with my parents, working full time while paying off student loans. I really dislike living at home and want to move out, but the cost of living in Los Angeles is so high, I feel so afraid. Especially when there’s a lot of uncertainty in my future–I have no idea what I want to do for a living, but I know I don’t want to be at my job forever.

I feel guilty every time I spend money, even if it’s just on a bag of chips–I think to myself, those few dollars could go towards a down payment on a house. I know I need to reward myself once in a while or I’ll be miserable, but when I have such a large financial goal in such an expensive city, how am I supposed to decide when and how much I’m allowed to spend money on unnecessary wants?
– Marissa

At first, I faced this exact same problem. I felt guilty every time I spent any money on anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. After a while, I somewhat resented that guilt and would sometimes spend money just to show that I “could” do it.

As time passed, though, I began to realize that guilt and resentment weren’t taking me to where I needed to go.

My solution was to simply budget a certain amount per month for frivolous purchases. I usually did this by keeping that amount in cash in my wallet. Once a month, I would withdraw that amount from my checking account. Then, if there was cash in my wallet, I knew I could freely spend it without guilt or worry.

I still do this, except without directly using cash. I’ve just become accustomed to keeping my frivolous spending in reasonable check.

Marissa has a second question.

Q2: Handling partner without money skills
I’m in a relationship of almost three years, and we believe we’re in it for the long haul, although we’re nowhere near ready for marriage (both still living at home, not ready financially, etc.). He has $50,000 in student loan debt, and his part time job barely covers the payments. I’m really concerned for his financial well being. Although he isn’t a reckless spender, I still feel that he’s not saving enough, earning enough, or making large enough payments on his loans (at his current pace, interest will add on over $20,000 by the time they’re paid off).

I’ve nagged about finances, but he feels comfortable with how things are. But I think the only reason he’s doing okay is because his parents are supporting him. He plans on going to grad school and would like to move out of home as well, which would add to his expenses and debt. I feel like his financial decisions now will affect both us in the future, but what is my role, given that we’re not married or living together? Do I have a right to tell him to spend less money, when he doesn’t even splurge much in the first place? (I do feel like he should be spending even less–as little as possible–since he’s $50,000 in the red)
– Marissa

Your role is to figure out whether this is a person that you want to be with over the long haul, given both his good traits and his bad ones. Trying to “mold” someone to be something you want does both of you a disservice.

The most impact a partner can really have on the other person is to help them find new channels for the person that they are. You can’t really change the person, but you can change the situation.

It sounds as though you’re deeply concerned about his personal finance decisions. Is that a deal breaker for you? I can’t tell you that, particularly since I don’t know what you value and I really don’t have a full picture of his behavior from your description. It’s going to require some soul-searching.

Q3: Auto insurance challenges
We are getting quotes from several different companies for home and auto insurance. Company A consistently ranks among the best in customer service and satisfaction, but its premiums are more expensive than Company B for a similar level of coverage. Company B offers cheap coverage, but has a mediocre reputation. Is it better to pay more for a policy from a reputable company, or is it better to save money now and keep your fingers crossed that you won’t need to file a claim any time soon?

– Charlie

It depends on why you’re buying the insurance. If you’re buying it just to fulfill a legal requirement and don’t really value the insurance itself, go for the cheap one.

However, if you’re actually buying it with regard to protecting yourself against the unforeseen, your insurance company is not one you want to battle with in a situation where you actually need home or auto coverage.

If I were in your shoes, I would probably get the more reputable coverage.

Q4: Handling elderly relative in decline
My 88 year old grandmother has lived in a senior apartment complex for some time, but it’s clear that she needs assisted living now (she’s had several falls, my father brings her medications to her every day because she can’t manage them on her own, she can’t really do her laundry or clean her home anymore…). She’s not really sick, just elderly and fragile. My parents pay her rent, and it is the maximum they can afford living the lifestyle they do now. They are in their 60s, well established in their careers and have made a lot of money in the past, but they just started a new business this year that has the potential to make money but is restricting their cash flow now. Additionally, they spend a LOT of money on “lifestyle upkeep” (luxury vehicles, hobbies, trips, a big mortgage, maintenance services, etc) that they don’t even get to enjoy very much because they work all the time and spend a lot of time taking care of my grandma. I have no idea what their plans are for retirement, and I’m not sure they do either.

When I see the way they are spending, I get really angry. How can they keep spending all this money on these things that don’t seem to matter to them very much, and aren’t willing to give anything up to give my grandma a better living situation? My grandma took care of me when I was young so they never had to pay for child care. Why aren’t they willing to help her now? It’s true, they’ve taken care of her for a long time, and maybe they are tired of it. But would they want me to make a decision like that when they are elderly and dependent on me?

They might try to get her in a nursing home if Medicaid will pay for it. She has spent time in nursing homes before, and she gets more depressed. She also doesn’t really need that level of care yet. I think they should either bring my grandma to come live with them in their large house, or give up some of their ongoing expenses to pay for assisted living in a small apartment for her (which Medicaid won’t pay for).

My husband and I don’t make very much money, and our home is too small for her, but we’ve offered to put what we can afford toward my grandma’s care. My parents have flatly refused. We visit my grandma frequently and try to help out by cleaning her home, taking her meds to her when my parents can’t, and other things, but what she really needs is assisted living or a daytime nurse.

My questions are these: is there anything else my husband and I can do to help my grandma while my parents dither around not making any decision and my grandma’s care just keeps getting worse? I’ve tried talking to my parents, both together and separately about this situation, but not with this much honesty. They are pretty touchy about how they spend their money, and hate talking about it with me.

Trent, what do I do? I want my grandma to have a comfortable, peaceful life. I want my parents to be less stressed out because they spend a lot of money on her and provide her so much care, when it still isn’t enough.
– Ellen

There’s a lot more going on here than just money.

Most likely, your parents are so used to your grandma being a steady and strong fixture in their life that it hasn’t really clicked for them that she is fragile now and that her life really won’t continue forever. It is often difficult to imagine our parents growing old and it often sneaks up on us without us really realizing it. Mom and/or Dad have just always been there. They’re the constant in our life, from infancy onwards.

I witnessed this happen with my own family, where an elderly great grandmother who had been such a rock in so many people’s lives began to weaken and many people simply failed to acknowledge it.

Since this is not your money we’re talking about here, you have little control over the situation. I think you are already doing what you can, and all you can do from here is keep the subject alive in the mind of your parents.

If your family is like mine, it’s not so much a money issue but a “not wanting to face the real situation with grandma” situation. That just takes time.

Q5: Preparing for a growing relationship
I have been in a relationship with my boyfriend for over 2 years. We moved in together a few months ago. I know that eventually we will get engaged and married, and this was something we discussed multiple times before cohabitating. We are in no rush to get married. I am very happy with our relationship, and so is he. We are in our mid-twenties, and I feel so young. I have seen my friends marry young and divorce already. So I do not want to put unneeded stress on our relationship by setting demands to be engaged or married within a certain period of time. Another reason that I am not pressuring him to propose to me is that weddings cost so much money.

My boyfriend and I have stable jobs, and we make $60K and $72K. Our financial situation is pretty good. We each contribute 12-15% of our gross salary to retirement funds. We have emergency funds. Our only debt is student loans and his car loan. He has $13K in student loans and $10K on a used car he bought in December. I have $32K in student loans. (It was $40K 3 years ago, but I am making progress!) We have no credit card debt. We put all our living expenses on one credit card that is in his name, but I am an authorized user. We pay that off in full every month. I also have a car/house fund, and one of his benefits is money towards our first home purchase. We are not big spenders, and we do a lot of research or give a lot of consideration before purchasing any big ticket items (e.g., vacations, furniture). Our primary long-term goals are paying off our loans and saving for a house.

So my question is how we are supposed to afford a large, glamorous wedding that people keep hinting about? If I had $20-30K extra laying around, I would love to have a big wedding with all our friends and family. The reality is that we do not have such funds. My family also does not have the money. My dad passed away a few years ago, and I would never ask my mom to pay because she needs to focus on her retirement plans. My boyfriend once suggested that we borrow the money from his parents to pay for the wedding. I cannot get comfortable with borrowing that much money from anyone for a wedding. I feel that given our financial situation and all the uncertainty in the economy these days, we should have a small, intimate wedding with just close friends and family or even a destination wedding with just a handful of people that are closest to us. I think there will be a lot of pressure for us to have a big wedding, particularly from his family. His sister was married last year, and it was a large wedding with about 150 guests and cost $30K. And I feel like his family will be disappointed if we do not have something similar so that all his extended family can attend. That is another dilemma – his family is from the North and mine is from the South. So neither location is convenient for everyone, and weddings are even more expensive where we live (DC area).

I know it may be a bit early to be asking these questions, but I just want to be prepared to have these conversations once we get engaged so I can get people to see my side. My boyfriend has gone back and forth on big or small wedding. We could save the money ourselves, too. But saving that much money for a wedding as opposed to a house is not in line with our priorities. How would you handle this potential situation?
– Kelly

You do not have to have any sort of “large, glamorous wedding.” If it does not fit with the values that you and your boyfriend share – and it sure sounds like it doesn’t – don’t have one.

The nature of your wedding is no one’s decision but your own. Have the event in a park and make it a potluck dinner. Go with your parents and a few close friends and talk to a justice of the peace or your preferred religious leader. Get married privately, then have one small reception-type event with your husband-to-be’s family and another one the next weekend near your family (or vice versa) to save everyone travel costs.

Who cares if someone’s extended family is “disappointed” by your big day? Their thoughts about your wedding can take a long walk off of a short pier.

Create a day that reflects who you are and who your husband-to-be is. If his extended family doesn’t like it, that’s their problem, not yours. Don’t spend a second of your life or a dime of your money trying to live up to such nonsensical expectations.

Q6: Handling student loan repayment progress
So here’s my situation: 31 year old female, bought first home last year with long term domestic partner (we hope to be married in the next year or so). Total mortgage payment $1000 which we split equally, so I pay $500. We have a shared checking account that we use to pay all common expenses (bills, dog food, trips etc). We each keep separate checking accounts.

I owe $10,740.84 in student loans broken down as follows (graduated in ’08 with a BS):
acct 1: 6.8% variable owe $3,991.53
acct 2: 4.399% mixed owe $4,331.04
acct 3: 1.36% variable owe $2,457.89

I pay $500 a month total towards this debt. I think my actual payments are supposed to be around $250 but I chose to start paying $500 at the beginning of this year so I could be debt free in 2 years (inspired by your blog!).

What I want to know about my student loan situation is how should I pay this debt off? Should I divide the $500 payment equally among the accounts or pay off the one I owe the most on first? I’ve been putting $200 into each of the first two and $100 into the third as it has the lower interest rate.
– Kathy

Make minimum payments on all three, then take the remainder of that $500 and throw it toward the highest interest rate debt. This will eliminate that set of debts the quickest.

At the rate you’re paying, you’ll probably have a lot of this paid off before there’s a rate adjustment. These interest rates are relatively low, as are the balances.

Kathy asked a follow-up question about her car.

Q7: Used car decisions
I save $260 per month that I put into a separate savings account for car/house insurance and taxes. I also have been saving about 20% of my paychecks for the last year or so into another savings account as an emergency fund. These two accounts total ~$11,500. I have no credit cards. I have no car payment.

Per one of your recent posts, I just started a 401k at 12% (since I’m not debt free I chose a lower percentage) which my company matches up to 7%. Retirement savings has my mind totally boggled but I opened the account and keep reading about so I figure I’ll eventually get a grasp on it.

Ok so now to my question! (well it’s in there at the end!) I drive 500 miles a week for work as a consultant dietitian in nursing homes. I am paid ~$1000 a month by my company for mileage expenses which I don’t count as my income, I pay myself back for gas and oil changes and put the rest in savings. My car was a gift from my boyfriend’s parents and is a 1996 toyota camry with ~175K miles. I’ve owned the car for about three years and it is fairly dependable. I have recently replaced the alternator and the timing belt, both costly items. I’ve asked one car rental chain about renting a car for the month and was given an estimate of ~$1300 per month (rental plus optional liability insurance). I currently only have liability insurance on my own vehicle, not collision.

What I want to know about the car situation is when I buy a new (used) car, what would be my best option? Should I look for something low-cost that’s dependable that may only last a few years? I just worry about buying a relatively newer car at a good price just to put so many miles on it! Should I shop around more at the rental places and try to find a place that will get close to my reimbursement level?
– Kathy

I would buy the best car you can with the cash you have on hand. Do not take out any debt for the car. Use the balance of the “emergency” account minus $1,000 (meaning you should leave behind a $1,000 emergency fund).

Focus on reliability with that purchase. Look for the car that will last the longest at your price point. It’s going to be used and it’s going to be older, but the point is that it gets you reliably from point A to point B for the next few years.

Yes, you’ll probably drive it into the ground. That’s fine. Remember that driving a car is the point of owning a car. If you didn’t have a need to get from point A to point B, you wouldn’t own a car.

Q8: Partner with terrible credit
I am 53 years old and divorced. Recently my ex-husband and I got back together. He owns the house that we built together and I bought a new house after our divorce. Currently, we are living in my house as it is smaller and more practical for empty nesters like ourselves. My husband has put our old home on the market but there has been little interest in it so far. His salary barely covers the mortgage and utilities so he can’t really contribute to our current living expenses much. He is wondering how long he should struggle to make the mortgage payments before giving it up to foreclosure or a short sale. I feel if we have no offers before winter, we should give it back to the bank. My question is this, I am in good financial shape with savings and no debt except my house. He may have a foreclosure and has 10’s of thousands (he won’t give me a number) of credit card debt. He wants to get remarried but I am afraid of the financial consequences to me. My credit score is 814 and I would like to keep it that way. I also don’t want to be responsible for any of his debt that he accumulated during our divorce period. Any advice?

– Marjorie

As long as your name doesn’t wind up on any of the debt, you should be okay.

The problem comes with things like insurance (if you get insurance together, your rates will be higher because of his likely poor credit score) and future loans (if you get a loan together, his credit score will raise the interest rate). Any financial arrangement you enter into with him will likely find his credit being a problem.

Most likely, your credit score won’t be affected, but you’ll still feel some of the financial consequences of his score unless you keep your finances very separated.

Q9: Housing choices in expensive area
After 3 years of unemployment, my husband has received a job offer and plans on taking it. Our combined income is close to $200K but we live in a very expensive city. We have a condo that we rent (rent doesn’t cover the entire mortgage and HOA dues – about $150 short) and a house that we live in. We are currently underwater in both of them due to the turn in the real estate market.

We have about $20K in student loans (at 3% interest), $6K on a car loan, $4000 in credit card debt and the mortgages on both our properties (currently paying interest only on all 4 – 1st and 2nd mortgages). I’m on track with my 401K (we’re both 38 years old) but my husband falls behind due to not being employed for a couple years. We have about $10K each in IRA and plan on adding $5K a year to each of these and about $10K in savings.

We need a larger house (we are about to have our 3rd child and our current house only has 2 bedrooms), we need a new-used car as one of our cars is about to die and is too expensive to keep fixing (neither one of us can take public transportation to work as there isn’t any) and I’d like to start adding more to our retirement and 529 plans. My plan is to pay off the credit card debt first, then tackle the car loan and then start to pay down our 2nd mortgage on our house. This would free us up to one day rent the house to cover the mortgage. Then save up for a down payment on a house. Given where we live we’re looking at a HUGE down payment to get the 20%. We can’t count on selling our current places to make up for the down payment.

Can you let me know if my plan is a good one or should we be putting our focus on something else first?
– Patricia

We have three children in our current home and use only two bedrooms. It is certainly doable, particularly when the children are younger.

That being said, I think your plan is a good one, but expect that it will take a few years to reach it.

My recommendation is to do what we did. Put a free-standing loft (with a railing) over the crib in the children’s room and have the oldest child sleep in the loft. This has worked wonderfully for us and still will even when the crib becomes a toddler bed.

Q10: Gencon thoughts
I know you went to Gencon this year. Did you see any new board games that you really liked?

– Mark

My favorite game I saw at Gencon this year was Eminent Domain. It’s a card-based game where you (and one to three other players) are exploring a previously-unexplored region of space. You’re looking to colonize (or conquer with your military) the planets in this region and utilize them for resources. It’s very thought-provoking with little downtime for any of the players (meaning you’re not sitting around waiting for others to take their turn) and plays in about forty five minutes.

Honestly, though, I spend most of my time there actually playing games. When I’m not doing that, I sit in the auction room looking for bargains. I don’t wander around the relatively expensive dealer hall too much or else I’ll start convincing myself to buy things I really don’t need.

At least in the auction room, if I convince myself to buy things I really don’t need, I’m only out $5 or so. I usually bring along a certain amount of cash I allow myself to spend on games and it lasts much longer in the auction room.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. mjd says:

    The entitlements programs are a drop in the bucket compared to how much money we’re spending on those stupid wars.

    As a consistent reader, I’d prefer it if you went back to not sharing your feelings on politics.

  2. Katie says:

    Raising the social security age is deeply regressive. People in well-paid, white collar jobs are much more likely to be able to continue working after 65 than someone who has spent their life doing manual labor and shot their knees or shoulders in the process. Something to think about. Matthew Yglesias has written about it extensively.

  3. Vicky says:

    I’m with mjd and Katie. I really appreciate your financial advice, not your politics. Your political outlook appears to be incredibly naive.

  4. Tracy says:

    I’m with mjd, Katie, and Vicky – you clearly have an extremely simplistic view that doesn’t even understand that there are three parts to this issue. It’s not JUST entitlements, it’s entitlements, spending, and revenue. Your ‘solution’ that only addresses entitlements is sad. It doesn’t surprise me, but it is sad.

    Hint: you keep talking about everybody working til 75, even though people have *repeatedly* told you that while that may be a possibility for office workers, it’s NOT one for most of those who do physical labor.

  5. Johanna says:

    It’s one thing to kick people when they’re down. It’s quite another to kick people when they’re down and then pat yourself on the back for your “political courage.”

    Other than that, I don’t have anything to add to what Katie and Tracy have said.

  6. valleycat1 says:

    ok. I’m 58; last time I checked I don’t qualify for social security retirement income until around age 63 and full benefits kick in at 67. Medicare currently starts at age 65; due to past health issues I will have to work until 65 if I want affordable health insurance. Trent needs to research this topic better because it sounds to me his proposal is the way things actually work now.

    I agree with the others that the programs usually touted as where the cuts ‘have’ to come are drops in the bucket compared to the defense budget. Some major papers have website tools where you can try to balance the budget – even if you completely do away with these items (social security, medicare, education) you’ve still got a huge deficit carried forward. But they’re at the forefront of the media coverage because they’re the items the public will rise up against cutting, so the politicians have protected themselves from the responsibility of having to make cuts. But I do agree with Trent that politicians focus entirely too much on what they think will get them reelected next time, not on the good of the country.

  7. DOT says:

    There is NO WAY I would support waiting until I was 80+ years old to have my money(that was deducted from my payroll check for 60+ yrs) returned to me.
    I would support a lower monthly payout at the current age, or better yet do away with social security.
    This would increase workers take home pay 11% and while safely invested would produce more than enough additonal income to satisfy me in retirement.
    Government is definately needed and has it place..however”social security” is a very bad investment choice for your retirment money.
    Medicare is A different ball game. I do believe the greatest nation on earth should be able to provide affordable health care to it citizens, however at this time I do not have a fully educated opinion on this.
    Medicaid – I could write a 100 page rant on this, so therefore I guess I could say that I do not have an educated opinion on this either. Just strong negitave feelings towards the program.

  8. Johanna says:

    Actually, I do have something more to add.

    The long-term futures of Social Security and Medicare have *nothing* to do with the debt ceiling issue. Raising the debt ceiling is about making sure the government has the money it needs to pay its bills (bills that it has already committed to paying) in the immediate future. None of the proposed Social Security and Medicare “reforms” would even start to have an effect for at least ten years.

    And neither of those things has anything to do with the real problem we’re facing right now, which is huge numbers of people without jobs. But somehow nobody seems to want to talk about that.

  9. Andrew says:

    I’m going to add to the calls to keep your politics out of things. I’m not even from the US, but I know your take is very simplistic. The biggest line-items your country faces is the continuation of the Bush tax cuts and your unfunded wars. What you advocate hurts the poorest amongst you whilst giving the rich a free hand, and I think that’s deplorable.

  10. Riki says:

    Really? You think Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are the cause of the budget crisis? Come on! I find it amusing and depressing that your solution to the problem never once mentions ridiculous wars fought over oil and honour.

    If “political courage” is defined as taking support from the people who need it most, well, heaven help America. Trent your priviledge and lack of insight is astonishing.

  11. Tracy says:

    IMO, the best blogger on the subject – someone who expresses views but doesn’t run a ‘political’ blog but has a lovely, nuanced, and *empathetic* view of the world – is slacktivist. His solutions are focused around job and revenue creation and improving our overall infrastructure (literally a win for everyone) and a politician that would do that would get *my* vote.

    Except they would *gasp* increase spending. They’d also increase revenue, reduce poverty, reduce traffic congestion, reduce health concerns and increase the overall standards in the US. But they start with increasing spending, so heaven knows that’s EVIL. Even if creating jobs means more people pay taxes.

  12. TLS says:

    In response to Q5

    Have the wedding that YOU want. Resist the pressure to spend money that you do not have or want to spend.

    Yes, people will be disappointed. You may be on the receiving end of rude comments or hurt feelings. But it’s your life and you have the right to live in accordance with what you believe.

    I had small wedding. People were upset, feelings were hurt. This was not the tradition in my extended family, and I got flak for it. But I have never regretted this decision. It was right for me and my husband. The people I wanted there were there, and that was enough for me.

    A few weeks later, my parents threw a big party for us, inviting many people who would have traditionally been invited to the wedding (but were not). This was not really what I or my husband wanted, but we did to make my parents happy. The party was fine, and my parents got what they wanted too (a big family celebration).

  13. Allie says:

    Tracy, I love Slacktivist too – have for years. I second the recommendation. For those looking for it: it is no longer at the old Typepad address; a few months ago he moved to a site called Patheos and his posts from the old site are gradually being moved over to the new site. Fred is a good, good man.

  14. Johanna says:

    Q2, Marissa: Your partner is paying down a $50K loan with income from a part-time job. His problem clearly is not lack of money skills, but lack of money. And since you have your own issues with your relationship with money (as described in Q1), you’re not really in a position to nag him about how he should be spending his.

  15. Steven says:

    Have you looked at defense spending Trent? If you think it’s the entitlement programs that are to blame, you’re nuts.

  16. Gretchen says:

    Yet again, a blogger working at 75 is a little different than say, a nurse. Or a green bean picker at 75. If they live that long.

    Just stop with the polictics. Or keep going, because then I’ll really stop reading.

  17. Tracy says:

    @Q5 Trent’s is right about how it’s your day and your decision and you should do what makes you happy. Although I think the hostility of his answer isn’t the best way to convince people to get on your side!

    First, it wouldn’t be uncommon for what would make you happy to be something that your family wants – to not disappointment them or your future in-laws. But the solution isn’t to tell them to take a long walk off a short pier. It’s to really sit down with them and explain that you want something that’s small and intimate, that you really want *time* to spend with your closest friends and family on this special day, not be surrounded by a lot of people. You’ll probably be able to convince them – and even if they don’t really ‘get’ it, at least they’ll know that you fully believe it. You don’t have to frame it about money – money may be a piece of it, but in a way, it’s not the biggest piece. The biggest piece is what would make you HAPPY. For some people, that is the 30k wedding. For others, it’s not. (Not to mention, many brides find the planning of a huge wedding incredibly stressful and NOT FUN)

    And as TLS mentioned, there are post-wedding options for a celebration that you can be a guest off. For many families, weddings and funerals are the only ‘family reunions’ that people have. If that seems to be where the real disappointment with your future-in-laws come from … not that they want to show off, but that they want to get together with distant family, maybe some sort of family reunion could be organized.

  18. Mister E says:

    I’m Canadian so I won’t comment on the political stuff other than to echo that I’ve known some office workers to work into their 70’s but I’ve never known many roofers or landscapers that did. Not everyone can be an internet writer and afford such a very, very simplistic view.

    Regarding the insurance question – you generally get what you pay for. When you buy insurance you’re buying claims handling. Companies that charge more will, generally speaking, have better claims service and be more willing to pay claims than a discount carrier.

  19. This comment is in response to Kelly, who hopes to be a bride someday. Kelly, I’ve been performing wedding ceremonies for almost ten years. I’ve done ’em all–from 2 people on the beach to 500 guests at the country club.

    I’ve NEVER had a bride who regretted eloping (or having a small, intimate wedding). But I’ve talked to many newlyweds who deeply regretted spending massive amounts of money on their wedding day.

    This economy has made small weddings the new black and I think it’s great! Don’t you worry about what others have to say. It’s your day and you can celebrate it any way you want. And you don’t have to go into debt. Remember–all you really need is each other, a marriage license and someone who can legally marry you. The rest is optional!

  20. Johanna says:

    @Tracy, @Allie: Thank you for the recommendation. I’d heard of slacktivist but never really read any of his writings. Just the most recent couple of posts make it clear how thoughtful and well informed he is.

  21. bogart says:

    Q4 I’m so sorry to hear about your Grandma. I’ve dealt with many of these issues with my dad who is now on Medicaid and in a nursing home with dementia but getting him there (and his need to be there) have been a gradual and back-and-forth process so I know something of what you are dealing with.

    I’d caution against a few things. One is that if for whatever reasons your parents don’t want your grandma living with them, this is probably not a good solution. It is unlikely to be stable and, really, would you want to go live in someone’s home if they didn’t want you there? I know you think your parents “should” do this and perhaps you are right, but that doesn’t change the reality.

    Also, in my experience “Assisted Living” facilities … aren’t. There’s very little assistance provided, they’re more like dorms for old and/or infirm folks, with a meal plan and laundry service (and some basic cleaning) and not much else.

    Finally, what I found with my dad — and to be fair he has been developing dementia for a long time which may make his situation different from your grandma’s but I kind of have to go on what I know — is that every single change in living situation has been incredibly stressful for him – it’s a new set of neighbors, new routines, new location for dining facilities, and it’s been really, really difficult and unpleasant. I’d counsel against moving your grandma if she can be accommodated where she is and counsel in favor of moving her to somewhere she can “age in place” (a facility with a blend of true assistance up to and including skilled nursing care) if she needs to move (again, another argument against her moving to your folks’ home if she is not truly welcome there).

    You say she’s now in a senior apartment complex. Does that provide any extra pay-for-services options? Does she have more physically capable neighbors (or is there a college student around) whom you (not your parents) could afford to hire to check in on her once or twice a day or bring her lunch or do her laundry? Can she get Meals-on-Wheels? Could you set up technologically enabled services, e.g. a motion detector or webcam (with her consent, obviously) that might help you know how she is doing even when you can’t be physically present? Do you know there exist electronic pill boxes that can help you set up and keep track of whether she is taking her meds even if there’s a day you can’t get by to see her (google medminder and click the dot com site that shows up as one example)? Any or all of those things might be useful tools to help your grandma without costing a bundle or requiring major changes for her.

  22. Jayme says:

    I think Kathy (Q6 & Q7) is putting too much into retirement, at this stage. She’s putting in 12% and her company puts in 7%. That’s 19%! If you back it down to 7% and 7%, you’ll be out of debt that much faster and still have a healthy retirement fund.

  23. Jayme says:

    Q8 – why not just lower the price until it does sell? Why risk a short sale or a foreclosure? Better to have a loan for $10K, $20K (I don’t know the difference in mortgage vs. sale price) rather than that on your record. With no house payment, you could get that debt paid off much more quickly.

  24. Tom says:

    Everyone is slamming you on briging up entitlements (as usually happens, which is why it’s never brought up in legislation), instead of defense spending. While I agree that defense spending is way to high, it’s a little more than half of what we spend on Social Security, Medicare and Medicade. In 2011 the TOTAL defense budget was $738 billion, Social Security was also $738 billion, Medicare was $498 billion and Medicade was $260 billion. Totals: $738 Billion on Defense, $1.5 Trillion on entitlements.

  25. Andrew says:

    Wow, your political views got a kicking :P

    I agree, by the way, because every developed and most developing countries(except Denmark, I heard) are going to have a massive pensions problem when everyone starts claiming from the system rather than paying in.

    Your suggestions would hurt a lot of blue collar workers more, and I would suggest toning them down while making other changes to the pension system, like the fact that almost all pension systems use the money coming in to pay for the claims against it, rather than saving and investing each persons money as it comes in, and paying them out again when they personally retire. This, though, creates the problem of those who pay in less getting less out again, but I don’t see that as a problem…

    This, to me, is the only way a pension system is sustainable.

  26. Geno says:

    I’d like to point out some numbers from the 2012 budget (from whitehouse.gov). Here are various programs as a percentage of the budget:

    Health Care: 22.62%
    Social Security: 20.04%
    “Income Security”: 14.48%

    National Defense: 19.27%

    This means that various entitlement programs already represent more than 57% of our budget. Health care (medicare/medicaid) and social security (at least) will get more expensive without significant changes.

    I think Trent’s point is that Social Security is being asked to do a job that it was never intended to do (provide a minimal, livable income for the last decade or two of a person’s life), while still working under the original funding assumptions (that the pool of contributing workers will continue to grow in relation to the size of the population receiving benefits). It just can’t work this way.

    As for the budget not being a part of the debt ceiling debate, that might have been true until congress decided to tie the vote on the debt ceiling to cuts in the budget. At that point, the debate was about the budget, not the debt ceiling.

    And nobody (that I could see) was willing to take a hard look at ALL the real issues (entitlements, military spending, revenue). Each political party wanted to target items for quick political gain rather than real budget reform.

    I’m with Trent: I will gladly listen to any politician that is willing to do real work on the real issues.

  27. Kathy says:


    Your ex won’t tell you how much credit card debt he has, yet you two want to marry each other again? I don’t know why you got divorced the first time, but if you can’t be honest with each other about finances now, you are setting yourself up for disaster. You have to be on the same page financially, and it doesn’t sound like right now the two of you are even reading the same book! Please do not remarry this guy unless and until you can both be open and comfortable about how you will deal with money as a couple.

  28. Tracy says:


    Except you’re not agreeing with Trent. You’re agreeing with me that they need to look at all 3 areas – Trent believes they should only look at 1!

  29. Tom says:


    Trent’s saying we should look there first, because all current projections say those costs are going to increase while the revenue for those costs will actually go down. Defense should, hopefully, be dropping off as we (slowly) withdraw from our various conflicts.

  30. Angie says:

    I know a ridiculous number of people who are on food stamps that smoke cigarettes, use drugs/alcohol regularly, and make frequent trips to the gas station for a fountain pop. I honestly believe that they would find a way to feed themselves if their food stamps were cut. I’ve been feeding my family for years on a tight budget. It drives me nuts!

  31. Andrea says:

    @31 Angie – I agree. While I certainly support food stamps for those who honestly need it, it is really frustrating to see the abuse. I used to work in a retail environment where people would come in and buy ridiculous food (processed frozen meals, soda, candy, junk food) and then pay for it while flipping through a handful of food stamp debit cards and talking on an iPhone. I must admit, it was really frustrating as a college student working hard and barely supporting myself to see someone drop $300 in food stamps for garbage food when that was over three times my monthly budget for food. Similarly, my mother, a nurse, recently listened to a patient who is living off Medicaid tell her about the new set of smart phones (all iPhones, ironically) she bought for her family and the family vacation they are taking to Florida. Again, I wholeheartedly support these programs for those who really need it, but there needs to be some oversight. If you can afford iPhones, you should not be getting any government assistance, because those are a want, not a need, and if you are on food stamps you should only be able to buy nutritional food basics. I will support any politician that can make that happen.

  32. JS says:

    Q3: If and when you are going through the stress of an event that requires you to make an insurance claim, you will regret giving up good customer service to save a few dollars. If you want to save money, can you increase your deductible?

  33. Johanna says:

    @Andrea: As a college student, did (or do) you attend a state university or community college, or receive any form of federal or state financial aid (grants or subsidized loans)? If so, does that give everyone else the right to audit all of your life choices?

  34. Kevin says:

    You make it sound like slashing entitlements is the only solution, when countless economists have pointed out that raising taxes even just slightly would solve the problems equally effectively.

    Also, you reassure us that someone who is currently 60 won’t “have the carpet pulled from under them,” but someone in their 30’s most certainly will. If I’ve structured my retirement savings strategy expecting Social Security to start trickling in at age 65, and you suddenly push that out to 82 for me, that completely changes how much I need to save up, and I’ve already invested 10 years in my current plan – time I cannot get back.

  35. Steven says:

    Even if I were on food stamps, I wouldn’t want Big Brother telling me what food I’m allowed to eat. I’m pretty liberal, but I hate how involved the government can be (and people want them to be) in our lives. Let us decide what’s best for us.

  36. Christine says:

    @Q5, Kelly-

    I was married last month and we actually decided against a smaller wedding or elopement. We had some drama in both sides of the family that was making us consider eloping. Then one night we had some friends over for a BBQ and we both ended up in the house at the same time getting different items for our guests. We looked at each other and we both said, “We want a wedding.” We realized at that moment that we wanted all of our friends and family around on day and we wanted them to eat, drink and be merry. We knew it would cost money, and we committed ourselves to spending the money because that’s what we wanted. We actually got more negative comments about the fact that we were spending money on the wedding instead of eloping. People felt that we should have saved the money instead. We ended up with 75 guests and an amazing wedding and memories that we will cherish forever. The wedding cost about $15k but I definitely could have cut costs further if I had wanted to. We had the wedding we wanted and we don’t regret spending the money because that was our priority. I learned that weddings bring out the best and the worst in people, so all you can do is what’s right for you as a couple. A friend of mine wants the big $25k wedding and they are having a long engagement in order to save up for it. Another friend had a small, intimate wedding (15 people) that about half as much as mine did because of the venue they chose. If you decide you want to have a wedding, there are so many options to help cut costs. It’s not $20k or nothing. :) Good luck!!

  37. Beth says:

    Re Q5: There are a ton of non-industry wedding blogs out there that can help with planning a wedding on a reasonable budget. apracticalwedding.com was my reality check any time I started feeling like the process was running me over. We’ve been married 2 months, and it’s the only wedding blog I still read because its about so much more than just the day. They really dig into the meat of planning a marriage, not just a wedding.

    The national average of a $20k wedding is just that, an average. They are averaging everything from the ridiculous huge multi-million dollar extravaganzas with the $20-for-the-license and time with the judge. Find a happy medium with a budget that makes you comfortable but still allows you to plan and incorporate the things you want in your day.

  38. Des says:

    @Kevin – Are you really a 30-year-old who is counting on SS to kick in at 65? That is my age cohort, and I don’t know anyone who is planning on SS being around when we retire. In fact, a number of my friends have opted out of it entirely (did you know clergy can do that?). It is anecdotal, to be sure, but it is hard for me to believe that a 30-year-old who is bright enough to be planning a retirement strategy hasn’t taken into account the possibility that SS won’t even exist in 35 years.

    Not that that excuses raising the age, mind you…

  39. Tracy says:

    In addition to what Johanna said, I’d like to point out that 1) there is already oversight on entitlement programs (Do you really think people just show up and say “I’m poor” and they get food stamps?) and 2) every single study has shown that expanding this oversight in the ways suggested would cost taxpayers MORE MONEY – significantly more – than it would save. So doing so has nothing to do with saving taxpayer money and is instead about punishing people for being poor and making choices that somebody else doesn’t approve of. And frankly, DO NOT CARE if somebody spends a little of the money freed up by having a PORTION of their food needs (food stamps alone usually aren’t enough for somebody to live off of) met by taxpayer dollars on cigarettes or alcohol. Neither of which are 1) illegal or 2) able to be purchased with said stamps.

    Now, if this theoretical oversight money was to be spent on increasing OPTIONS to nutritional and healthy food (particularly in food desserts) or through community kitchens – SIGN ME UP.

    But if you are seriously concerned with our nation’s debt, increasing oversight on entitlements is absolutely one of the fastest ways to increase our debt.

  40. Andrea says:

    Johanna – I attended a small University of Wisconsin (not Madison or Milwaukee) school with no help from my parents, no grants, and only unsubsidized government loans (even though my parents were not helping financially, until a certain age you are considered “dependent” on them and their incomes were high enough to prevent me from getting any aid). I worked 30-40 hours a week while attending school full time to survive. So yes, I did (and continue to) get frustrated when people spend money on their wants while collecting free money from the government. Like I say, help the people that really need it by all means, but if you feel entitled to free money for food from the government, then I don’t think you should get the privilege of choosing whatever you want. The WIC program is better – it only allows you to buy specific, healthy foods with your funds. And I wouldn’t call controlling what foods can be purchased a “big brother” program – the government shouldn’t care what you are buying for food if you aren’t getting money for it from them, but if you are, then you give up the right to choose whatever you want. That could at least provide some sort of incentive to get off food stamps. Sorry, that’s just how I feel!

  41. Suz says:

    #5: Have the wedding that you and your boyfriend want to have and try not to worry about the rest of them. Yes, it’s hard to listen to the negative comments, the resistance, etc., but made a decision and stick to it. Once you are married, your life is yours together–you make your decisions together and don’t have to include anyone else if you don’t want to– and this is the first thing that you and your future husband will do as a couple. It’s really tough to not be influenced by others and take a stand against what everyone thinks should be the ‘norm.’ If your in-laws want to throw you a party, that’s great, but it should be their gift to you if it’s something they value so much.

    I think your intuition is right, and taking a loan for this wedding from your in-laws would be a bad idea. It puts them in control of your life and finances for a while, (plus they will feel like they get more say into what the wedding will be like) and if something happens it could tarnish your relationship permanently.

    As you make your plans I would advise you to NOT visit a lot of the normal wedding websites unless you want to a) drive yourself nuts or b) increase your tastes. Looking at the Knot made me feel like the nicer photos and the nicer dress was SO IMPORTANT, but the only important parts are you and him. Everything else is secondary.
    Good luck!

  42. Funkright says:

    Your comments on debt are incredibly naive, read web of debt, it will enlighten you. You provide good advice or guidance from a personal budget pov, but you definitely need a deeper understanding of monetary policy and its impact on budgets and government spending.

  43. Andrea says:

    Tracy – I agree about food deserts. However, are food stamps really only covering a portion of people’s need for food? Everyone who I’ve seen using food stamps is buying several hundred of dollars of food at a time, way over the amount that would seemingly need to feed a small family with frugal food for a month. My house hold of 2 makes it on $200/month and we could make cuts if we wanted to. We just don’t buy junk food that tends to cost more and provide less nutrition.

  44. Tracy says:


    The food stamp program already DOES control what can be purchased with it. It may not be your own personal beliefs of what it should cover but they exist.

    And actually in some ways the WIC program is worse – it covers specific sizes/brands/etc, some of which a store doesn’t carry – and which may not actually meet the nutritional needs of the person. It’s a good program in theory, but it needs to be more flexible and accommodating to actual needs.

    And if you have never been on food stamps (I haven’t, but I have read the stories of those who have) I can tell you quite honestly that being on them ALONE is incentive enough to try to get off them if you can. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

  45. Des says:

    Q5 – A co-worker/friend of mine came into the office one morning after a vacation and sent out an email that said “Guess what I did on my vacation…eloped!” with pictures of her beautiful Hawaiian wedding ceremony. My first thought was “she is so smart, I wish I had done that!” I loved my big wedding – but besides cost they are also stressful to plan and execute. People say “oh, its your day do what you want” but that isn’t true. There are plenty of expectations to manage, and it is a headache. I barely remember my wedding because it was all so busy, and there were a couple hundred people who all wanted to talk to me that I couldn’t pay proper attention to any of them. Plus, all I really wanted to do was start the honeymoon ;)

    My advice: do a small ceremony and have two receptions – one in the north and one in the south. You can do low-budget or not, either way. That way, all your family could attend one of them, and you can truly enjoy the celebration.

  46. Tracy says:


    Actually, yeah they really are covering only a portion of the needs for food – do some research into how much is actually covered. And keep in mind that there are issues of 1) time and 2) availability of cooking resources, including knowledge.

  47. Jonathan says:

    I agree with Trent’s assessment of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. I don’t, however, agree that this is the entire solution to the problem. It is clear that those programs are being used in a way now that is not what they were designed for. The age requirements for receiving benefits should have been adjusted as lifespan increased. Raising the age now is an unpopular suggestion, but the longer we wait the worse the situation gets. This does still leave the problem of the workforce that is unable to continue working and being productive beyond the current retirement age. Obviously that needs to be addressed, and perhaps one way to do it is to redesign social security so it works for those people. I do think that some change is needed.

    Like others have mentioned there are other areas where cuts should happen. Defense spending is also the area I would most like to see cuts. Our defense spending is many times greater than that of other nations. Simply getting defense spending in line with other nations would be a big help. While that would likely require us to get involved in less international conflicts it would hopefully also prevent us from being such an international bully, for lack of a better word.

    Last, we have to increase revenue. I am not going to refer to it as “raising taxes”, because I believe that is an inaccurate description for simply letting temporary tax cuts and loopholes expire. There is a lot of room for improvement in the US tax code across all income ranges. I’d like to see the deductions and loopholes ended that are allowing the wealthy and businesses to pay little or no taxes, while I would also see those ended that allow nearly 50% of Americans to pay no taxes and in some cases even get back more than they paid in to start with. I also support ending the mortgage deduction. Why should the US government pay part of the interest on my mortgage? Personally, I’d prefer a consumption tax to an income tax, but I’m sure that will never happen.

  48. Johanna says:

    @Andrea: So your education was subsidized by the taxpayers of Wisconsin. (I’m not going to consider how hard you worked at your job, or what support you did or didn’t get from your family, because you don’t know those things about the people you see using food stamps.) Do the Wisconsin taxpayers get to make decisions about what kind of cell phone you can use? Or, more to the point, what kind of classes you can take? I knew somebody at a state school once who took a class that wasn’t absolutely essential for her degree – she just took it because she was interested in the subject. That really burns me up. Sorry, that’s just how I feel!

    See where I’m going with this?

  49. Kevin says:

    @Des: In the interest of disclosure, I’m Canadian, so no, I’m definitely not counting on Social Security. :) Our national pension program (Canada Pension Plan) is fully funded for several decades.

  50. Johanna says:

    Here’s an idea (possibly unoriginal, only slightly unserious): Food stamps for everyone. Everyone in the country – rich or poor, old or young – gets a debit card with some basic amount ($100/month per person, say) to spend on food. (Any kind of food, but it must be food.)

    So many other government programs and services are open to everyone, regardless of whether they “really need it.” Everyone over 65 gets Medicare, with no means testing. Almost everyone of the appropriate age gets Social Security. Anyone can use a public library, whether they can afford to buy books at a bookstore or not. Public schools are open to anyone in the school district. Etc. Isn’t having enough food to eat a more fundamental right than any of these other things?

    The only problem is, when everyone at the grocery store is using a food-stamp debit card, there’ll be no way to tell which people are poor. So you won’t know which ones to look down on.

  51. Brian Carr says:

    I certainly feel bad for the person who has reconnected with their ex-husband only to find he has lots of debt. I know someone who faced a similar situation and it didn’t work out well for them – namely because they were so in love with their ex that they gladly signed up for their ex’s debt, too. When it fizzled out (again) he was on the hook for their debt. Not a good situation at all!

  52. DOT says:

    #39 Tracy
    I could assume that if someone had the means to purchase a set of Iphones as gifts that something may have been fradulent on the food stamp/medicaid/welfare application.
    Suspected Government Fraud should be investigated with taxpayers money.

  53. Kevin says:

    @Johanna: “Almost everyone of the appropriate age gets Social Security.”

    Don’t you have to have paid into Social Security in order to receive it? Or at least, isn’t your payout based on your lifetime contributions?

    In that respect, isn’t it more like a forced savings program than a blanket entitlement program? Aren’t they really just returning your own money to you?

  54. Jonathan says:

    @Andrea – #43 – From what I’ve see whether or not food stamps are enough to cover a families groceries varies a lot from one family to the next. When I was young my family received food stamps for a time while my Dad was recovering from a mine accident. The food stamps always covered our food for the month, but that was supplemented with a large garden. I had a great-uncle whose family never spent the full amount, so they always had more than a month’s worth of food stamps extra. I also knew people who spent significantly more on food than the food stamps would cover.

    When you see people with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries in their cat who pay with food stamps I imagine that is at the first of the month? For some reason it seems that many people who get assistance splurge when they first get the benefit, then run low or completely out towards the end of the month. I suspect its all part of the mentality that keeps them from ever getting ahead financially. Obviously not everyone getting assistance has this problem, but my experience is that those using the programs long-term often do. Both the area where I grew up and the area where I live now have approx 30% of the population living below the poverty line, so food stamps use is something I’ve seen a lot.

  55. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: “Don’t you have to have paid into Social Security in order to receive it?”

    Yes (more or less – if you were married for 10 years to someone who paid into the system, that also works). That’s why I said “almost.”

    “Aren’t they really just returning your own money to you?”

    No, because the amount you get out is not directly proportional to the amount you paid in. (If you pay more in, you do get more out. But if you pay twice as much in, for example, you get less than twice as much out.)

  56. JuliB says:

    Responding to your point about the budget, I have to say that you really missed the whole point about the debt theatre. Baseline budgeting is a big part of the problem. The US assumes the budget will increase by 7% (I think) annually. Lowering it to 5% is a cut.

    Not in my book, but that’s how they figure it.

    So all the arguing is over decreases in increases – whatta’ joke.

    A pox on both their houses.

  57. Johanna says:

    @JuliB: What about inflation and population growth?

  58. K Ann says:

    I’m with #16 Gretchen – It might just be time to stop reading.

  59. DOT says:

    #50 Johanna, that may sound nice at first but in reality I would not want the government having that much influence in my life.
    I strive to be as independant of the government as possible.( Yes, I use libraries, roads, and enjoy the safe neighborhood I live in….and
    I am sure you have read past comments of mine regarding SS and other “programs”)
    However, I find it very rewarding and liberating to accomplish a somewhat state of financial freedom from the government. I would be more supportive of government programs that could educate not just give.
    Family, church, community should be the first place a hungry/needy family should turn.
    Our govenment is not set up to provide a nutritious meal, loving encouragement or a long term solution to truly help the needy.
    Family, church, community may not be perfect, however I believe it is better than “here’s a hundred bucks see you next month” from the gov.
    Obviously,this is not the only or best solution, just the direction I tend to lean.

  60. Sonja says:

    Q5 Kelly – Wedding
    I am celebrating my 28 wedding anniversary tomorrow. We had a wedding that could best be called “basic”: service officiated by a Notary Public, venue was my parent’s family room, dress was off-the-rack dressy dress (not wedding/formal), we had good champagne and a great cake and about 30 guests, mostly family. We didn’t have much money and decided to save it for the marriage.

    I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not having a big wedding. In the 28 years since our wedding we have been to countless other weddings of friends, co-workers, relatives, and sons and daughters of friends. If we feel socially obligated to go, we go. But after you have been to a dozen or so the novelty wears off. They are predictable and boring. I can see that for the young it seems important and glamorous. Down the road it is not at all an important element in your marriage. But a pile of debt would be.

    Q8 – Marjorie. Make a list of 5 good reasons to marry this guy again. Make a list of 5 reasons not to. Which list was easier to make?

  61. JuliB says:

    #57 – Johanna, I believe these two points should be considered as part of the budgeting process. My point is that using a baseline budget with a projected 7% increase is confusing, and makes for hysterical polemics.

    I’m TEA, but believe that even the DOD shouldn’t get 7% as an expected increase.

    All I want is clarity, understanding, and honesty. I know it’s a lot to ask for from politicians, but a girl can dream…

  62. Tracy says:


    Why would you assume that? You can buy a *new* iphone for 49 bucks. You can receive medicaid if you have low income and meet the qualifying scenarios, which are varied.

    You are NOT required to go through every ounce of your savings and spend it on healthcare before you qualify for medicaid. There are many, many scenarios in which it is possible to qualify and yet be able to afford an iphone – including, but not limited to, become disabled and on SS, on medicaid because you have no job and no ability to work but be able to save or using savings to buy a couple of 50 dollar iphones for your family.

    And you miss my point. I’m not a fan of government fraud but the 50 dollar iphone? That’s not fraud. And if your REAL CONCERN is making the nation’s budget solvent, than you’d rather we lose a little bit of waste to fraud then spend 10 times as much money investigating potential fraud. If you’d rather spend the money investigating potential fraud, than government waste isn’t your real concern.

  63. Andrew says:

    Q4-Ellen: Have you considered that maybe your grandmother has some say in how her own life is run? Maybe she wants to stay in her current living situation. Maybe she doesn’t want to live with your parents. Maybe she doesn’t want interfering, ignorant young people such as yourself to assume that they know what is best for her.

  64. Andrea says:

    Johanna – my apologies, I didn’t mean to start a huge angry discussion about foodstamps. While I guess that my education was subsidized by the taxpayers of Wisconsin, I was not handed free money that I will never have to pay back. I have to pay back every cent and have paid interest on all of those loans since day one. That’s a whole different thing from getting free money for my groceries that I never have to pay for.
    Regardless – please know that, as I said previously, as a whole I support most programs for those who genuinely need the help, and the vast majority of participants do need the help. However, there is abuse in the programs and that’s where their needs to be more oversight. It would also not cost a huge amount of money to simply not allow a few key items to be purchased with food stamp money. I’m not talking about someone from the government nitpicking every kind of cereal to decide what is good and what isn’t, I’m saying that soda and candy has zero nutritional value, so it should not be covered. If people want to buy those foods, they can do so with their own money. My feeling is that if you can afford to have a $80+ per month smart phone, you don’t need to food stamps. I’m not looking down on the poor, I’m trying to say that we need to find out who is abusing the program, get them off of it and give it to the needy. Again – not trying to be judgemental, because no one who ever comments around here is…

  65. Johanna says:

    @DOT: Well, we have a difference of opinion (no surprise there). And as I said, it’s not an entirely serious suggestion.

    But I find the combination of these two statements interesting:

    “I would not want the government having that much influence in my life.”

    “I would be more supportive of government programs that could educate not just give.”

    Isn’t a program that “educates” actually *more* intrusive and influential than one that “just gives”? “You’re entitled to $100/month, so here it is” is a lot less intrusive than “I assume the reason you need money for food is because you don’t know how to budget properly, so I’m going to give you a lecture on that and also search your pockets for any $50 iphones you may have on you.”

    And of course, the government providing money for food doesn’t mean that families, communities, and churches can’t continue to provide whatever education or loving encouragement they feel is appropriate.

  66. Josh says:

    Food stamps should absolutely be limited to nutritious foods, and I’m sorry but there are not any health conditions that require Doritos and Candy Bars to survive. Even for people with diabetes, fruit (including dried fruit such as raisins) and/or glucose pills etc, there are other healthy alternatives as well.

  67. Katie says:

    Okay, on the smartphone issue, two points:

    1) There are jobs that are not well-paid (or that are part time) that nevertheless provide a smart phone; and

    2) People sign up for two-year contracts for those phones. Their financial circumstances can change drastically in that time.

    You really shouldn’t judge an individual’s circumstances because you see them with a phone.

    Oh, and also, I pay $40 a month for my smartphone, including data plan; yeah, it’s a luxury but it wouldn’t feed a family of four.

  68. Tracy says:

    @64 Andrea – Hey, chocolate may not be a fundamental human right, but I think it should be!

    But no, I hear what you’re saying and I really do understand where you’re coming from, but as an (interesting to me tangent) – the food stamps program was not actually created to help people in poverty. It was created as a form of agricultural subsidy – to help large agricultural corporations. It’s entire basis isn’t around nutritional value.

    I mean, I am absolutely serious that I want to see more healthy food – more healthy OPTIONS for people of all income levels. I hope that everybody finds a way to eat that’s nutritionally sound for them, that makes them as healthy as it is possible for them to be. As long as the government is more interested in funding BigAg than they are in increasing healthy options for people, that’s going to be an uphill battle.

    But more than that, I just don’t feel like – if you are struggling to make ends meet enough that you are on food stamps, that you don’t always know if you’re going to have rent next week, if you’re working two jobs and still not above the poverty line? Go ahead. Have a candy bar. Have a soda to get through the day. Have a little joy.

  69. Andrew says:

    Hey Trent–While you’re busy cutting Social Security, Medicare, and all those other programs that don’t directly benefit you, why not take a minute to eliminate the billions of $$ in federal agricultural subsidies (particularly the one for ethanol) that make your state of Iowa such a pleasant place to live?

    Hello?? Hello? i can’t hear you—

  70. Josh says:

    @Andrew, I agree almost all subsidies should be ended, especially ethanol. I would support ending every subsidy/tax break except for those that promote truly green energy, such as solar, as our future does depend on that before climate change becomes irreversible.

    The mortgage tax credit and child tax credits should also be ended.

  71. Tracy says:

    Also, I actually really love Johanna’s ‘everybody gets a food stamp debit card’ a LOT and I would love to see how it removes some of the stigma and the second and third-hand stories that always spring up in these conversations.

  72. Johanna says:

    @Andrea: First of all, I’m not angry at you, and I apologize for sounding like I was.

    My point about the education is that your tuition was lower than it otherwise would have been because the University of Wisconsin system receives funding from the state government. You didn’t see any of that money personally, but you still benefitted from it, and will not have to pay it back.

    On the smartphone, in addition to what Katie said: Maybe the person received the phone (and the service plan) as a gift. Or maybe it’s not theirs, but they’re borrowing it for the day from a friend, because they need to be reachable while they’re out grocery shopping. Or maybe they made deep sacrifices in some other part of their budget to afford the phone, because having a smart phone is important to them for some reason.

    There are so many possibilities, and which one applies in a particular situation is none of anyone else’s business. That you feel like it should be – but you don’t think *your* life should be the business of everyone in Wisconsin – really does sound kind of judgmental.

  73. Johanna says:

    @Tracy: I’m glad you like my idea. :) It was sort of inspired by a blog post Paul Krugman wrote a few weeks ago, responding to a proposal for means-testing of Medicare (so that benefits would only go to those who “really need” it). His points were (1) doing that would save relatively little money, since fairly few retirees can afford to pay what private insurers would charge for people of that age, and (2) it would make a lot more sense, and you could achieve almost the same result, just by raising those people’s taxes.

    Fewer people receive food stamps than would benefit from a means-tested Medicare, but the idea is the same: means-tested program = un-means-tested program + taxes.

  74. Tracy says:

    AND if everybody was on the same playing field, we wouldn’t have to ‘worry’ about fraud and spend additional money policing for it – so it would reduce costs for those being subsidized.

    And it reminds me honestly of some stories I heard about schools switching from differently-colored-punch cards for school lunches (where those on free or reduced lunch had different colored cards than those paying regular price) to swipe cards that all looked the same.

    The change led to reduced bullying/harassment of kids and increased confidence in kids who were on subsidized lunches – and better learning all around.

  75. Johanna says:

    Yep. But I figured I didn’t need to explain that part. :)

  76. Johanna says:

    Oh, and another thing: I read the other day that something like 30% of the people who are eligible for food stamps never even apply for them. I’m not sure why that is – whether they don’t realize they’re eligible, don’t know how to apply, can’t get to the place where they apply, are worried about the stigma, or something else – but extending eligibility to everyone should help on all those counts.

  77. Josh says:

    AND what would be even better? If we just let the government provide equal amounts of everything for everyone, food, housing, cars, clothes, etc…. then we could all be the same! oh wait…

  78. jim says:

    q1 Marissa : Set aside a % of your money to spend on yourself as entertainment, splurges etc. Maybe you should move? LA is expensive. Consider living somewhere cheaper. You don’t have to move across country either. Somewhere cheaper in CA would

    Q7 Kathy : Buy a late model used Prius or some other similar car with good mileage. If you drive that much you need a dependable car that gets good mileage. THe $1000/month will pay for it. I don’t think this is a good situation to drive a cheap old used car or ‘beater’. Driving 500 miles a week is a lot and if your car isn’t dependable you’ll just be broken down on the side of the road adn buying another beater soon. Your employer is giving you $1000 a month, that should be used for a dependable car, you could buy a 2008 prius or something and easily cover your costs with the $1000. A car loan wouldn’t be a horrible choice here.

  79. Gretchen says:

    Ack- the comments draw me back.

    Recently, I heard a study asking (paraphrasing) do you get government benefits? And most people said no. They forgot about things like mortgage and child deductions on one’s taxes and student loans.

    I also certainly do not think having a cart full of food when one has money is splurging!
    How is any cheaper to shop more frequently?
    Tracy’s point reminds me of some schools were all the kids get free breakfast. Most kids would qualify anyway.

  80. Tracy says:

    @Josh 77

    I think you misunderstood how Johanna’s program would actually function. It’s not about the government paying for everybody, it’s about streamlining costs, reducing fraud and inefficiency, reducing (some) of the stigma of poverty – and those for those who don’t ‘need’ assistance, there would be no government subsidy.

  81. jim says:

    Andrea said:
    “While I guess that my education was subsidized by the taxpayers of Wisconsin, I was not handed free money that I will never have to pay back. ”

    The government paid for probably 50% or more of the cost of your education. They didn’t hand you a check, but the end result is the same.

    Rather than food stamps, what if the state of Wisconsin ran a grocery store where the prices were 50% less? That would be the same model as state universities run under. Would you approve of that? It would cost the state more than food stamps to run shops.

    You know that the federal government also subsidized your public university education via federal grants to the schools.

    You still benefited from government tax dollars. Just differently.

  82. jim says:

    Maybe we should just have the national guard confiscate phones from all the poor people?

  83. em says:

    @Johanna 76: Until recently I was one of those 30%. I knew I qualified but didn’t view it as something I needed to take advantage of. My family made enough money to pay our bills and put a substantial amount of money away each month into savings. An extra $200/month (what we pay in groceries) would of course help but I didn’t see it as something we needed at the moment since we were getting by perfectly fine so I didn’t take it. Recently our financial situation changed so we are starting to take advantage of it. I didn’t view it as something we truly needed until recently. Just another reason you didn’t state in your comment that I thought might interest some.

  84. Maria says:

    #76 Johanna
    My 68 year old father receives $985.00 a month in social security and qualifies for food stamps (snap)and does not receive them by choice. He feels he does not need them to live a better life.This is his only income and he actually lives a very nice life. My parents did not save any money to speak of (maybe around 7k in their lifetime and it is long since gone). Until my mothers death 3 years ago at age 60 my parents never made more than 24,000 a year combined and NEVER ONCE in their 42 years of marriage and two children did they ever receive food stamps, welfare, government housing assistance, child care assistance, medicaid, free cheese, wic, free school lunches for us kids, free birth control, free condoms, free higher education and many more government freebees I can not recall at the moment.They also never drank, smoked or owned an Iphone. We lived in a perfectly maintained 3 bedroom mobile home with absolutely no bell and whistles that they purchased on 1/2acre of land. My dad still lives in it and at 30 years old it looks almost new because of the pride they took in there home.
    Some things my parents did do: Plant a garden, turn off all electricity when not in use, including the hot water heater, drive very old cars very little,6 minute showers, purchase like new thrift store clothes, prepare delicious home cooked meals,entertain friends and family with pot luck dinners, pinnacle nights, board games. Tent Camping for family outings.
    Yes, they knew they were eligible for government assistance, yes they knew how to apply, yes they had transportation to apply and probably could care less about the stigma.
    So to answer your question about why some people may take government hand outs…They have pride in being self sufficient and do not believe that these type of government hand outs would make their life any more enjoyable or rewarding in the long run. They just don’t need the government handouts because they educated themselves to live comfortably and enjoyably on very little income and understood the importance of making sound well thought lifestyle and financial decisions in order to have a better chance of avoiding bad financial situations.
    Of the 70% receiving the benefits…I just wonder how many feel like government slaves stuck in a horrible system without a clue how to get out.

  85. Maria says:

    so to answer your question why some people may NOT take government handouts…

  86. Andrea says:

    Johanna – thanks for the interesting discussion. I apologize for coming off as judgemental – and at the very least it is great to hear many different viewpoints about it.

    Tracy – there are similar programs that kind of work in the same way to “even out the playing field” for all kids so underprivileged kids don’t have a stigma attached to him. In my local area we have a free summer lunch program (federally funded) for all kids under 18. It is meant to help kids that are on the reduced lunch program during the school year so that they don’t go hungry during the summer, and at first I thought it was strange that kids didn’t have to somehow prove that they were eligible for free or reduced lunches. However, it was later exlained to me by the program administrator that they let all kids each lunch so there is less of a stigma for the kids that need it. Definitely makes sense, and I’m happy for my tax dollars to feed hungry kids.

    Jim – I understand that public universities are funded partially by tax dollars. But I have been a Wisconsin taxpayer for years – so those are part of my taxes. Over the course of my life – I will continue to help support public universities, which I am happy to do. I would much rather attend a public university that makes education a bit more affordable for more people than attend a private institution that is not subsidized just to avoid the subsidy. I’m happy to help pay for the universities through my taxes because I want people who cannot afford private schools go to public ones, and thus more students can improve their station in life. Because I am a taxpayer, I view this as completely different from getting free money for groceries. Again, not that there is anything wrong with food stamps, but only if you honestly are in need. But I definitely understand what you are saying, I just view it as paying it “backward” I guess, because the taxes I now pay will help pay for subsidies for new students in school.

  87. mary w says:

    Marisa Q2. Give the guy a break and don’t nag him! You said yourself that he’s not making bad choices, just not perfect ones in your opinion. Yet in the previous question you indicated that you aren’t happy with the money choices you’re making yourself. So, “no” you don’t have the right to tell someone you aren’t married to or financially entwined with how to spend his money.

    Kelly Q5. One sign that you’re mature enough to be married is that the two of you can make decisons together (even unpopular ones) and then stick to them. If you can’t stand up to your future in-laws and other relatives on this issue it’s gonna be a miserable marriage.

  88. mary w says:

    Q4. Ellen. If you really want to help your grandmother why don’t YOU take her in? She must have some source of income (SS? or other pension) or maybe your parents would be willing to give you what they’ve been paying for the apartment. Or maybe you could visit her daily in a nursing home. I realize that might involve you completely changing your lifestyle, but isn’t that what you expect your parent to do?

    They aren’t kicking your grandmother onto the curb, they just have a different view of what they are willing to do. Maybe they want to live a good life themselves (by their, not your standards) and save enough that they won’t need your money when they are her age.

    This subject hits a bit close to home since my MIL is dropping not very subtle hints that she wants to move in with us. That ain’t gonna happen. I’d be very upset if another family member thought that I should rearrange my life to meet MIL wishes. Again, I’m not talking about leaving her on a curb somewhere. We pay her donut hole prescription costs, bought her a new car when her old one was totaled, etc. But I would not rearrange my life to meet his wishes.

  89. Katie says:

    But Andrea, why do you think people who receive food stamps and other government assistance don’t pay taxes? Even if they don’t make enough money to pay state income tax, they might at other times in their lives (you probably didn’t pay many taxes the entire time you were in school either!). They also pay sales tax. They may pay property taxes. It’s fallacious to think food stamp recipients aren’t taxpayers.

  90. Johanna says:

    @Maria: What you’re describing sounds very much like it’s about the stigma of food stamps, albeit a different aspect of the stigma than the “strangers sneering at you in the grocery store” phenomenon we’ve been talking about.

    Your father takes Social Security but not food stamps – views one as a “government handout” but not the other. But they both come from the government.

    I think it’s very sad that so many people view food stamps as something akin to charity (not that I think accepting charity should be stigmatized, either), rather than as something they have a right to have.

  91. Johanna says:

    @Andrea: I guess what I’d ask is for you to examine what you mean by “honestly in need” of food stamps. If an iphone is luxury enough to disqualify someone, where do you draw the line? If it’s at “anything that’s not strictly necessary for survival,” well, that’s the vast majority of the things that anyone owns, and you’d be demanding that people endure some pretty deplorable living conditions before they’d be eligible for any help at all.

    Personally, I think that in the richest country the world has ever known, we can afford to give people a minimum standard of living that’s a little higher than “not starving to death.”

  92. JS says:

    @Mary W (88)

    Read the letter again:

    “My husband and I don’t make very much money, and our home is too small for her, but we’ve offered to put what we can afford toward my grandma’s care. My parents have flatly refused. We visit my grandma frequently and try to help out by cleaning her home, taking her meds to her when my parents can’t, and other things, but what she really needs is assisted living or a daytime nurse.”

    The LW is incapable of taking her in, and is offering to do more, but is being thwarted by her parents.

  93. Amy says:

    I haven’t gone through all 92 comments that precede mine, but can see just from the first few that I’m probably not in the minority among your readers. While I agree with you that some tough choices may have to be made, it is absolutely and entirely unrealistic to believe that people can work full-time until they are 75. Even the fittest person will be experiencing some health issues by that point.

    In addition, 50 and 55 year olds are already experiencing serious age discrimination in the workplace, especially when trying to find new jobs. They’re the first to get laid off and the last to be hired. Have you seen all those articles about how job advertisements are telling people “not currently working” to not even bother applying?

  94. moom says:

    The entitlements can be cut but the taxes to pay for them could be raised. That’s the choice. And the Bush tax cuts and increase in spending on defence and on other things is also a big part of the problem. The problem is that going into the recession the US had a deficit caused mainly by these two things.

  95. AnnJo says:

    @5, Kelly,

    I’ve attended a number of elaborate, expensive weddings of extended family members. I do not remember what I ate, what flowers decorated the tables, whether the band was good or mediocre, etc. I would have been fine with take-out pizza and chicken wings.

    What I do remember is the opportunity to meet the children and even a few grandchildren of my cousins and learn their accomplishments, the chance to once again see relatives I like but haven’t seen for years, to get a little better acquainted with the remaining members of the generation preceding mine and mine their wealth of stories, and to share in the joy that the wedding of young people I’d never seen before brought to their family.

    You won’t please everyone no matter what you do, but don’t feel that just because a wedding includes large numbers of extended family members, you must impress them all with your extravagant catered meal or party favors. Many will just be happy to be there.

  96. Kate says:

    Jeez, the idea of spending even $20k for a wedding just amazes me! Sure, one wants to celebrate with family and friends, but it’s basically just a party. You can always say, “we have a specific amount of money to spend, and the things that are important to us are [insert elements here].” That lets everyone know roughly what to expect. Several members of my family had other priorities, and after hearing the above, they did the wonderful – and sensible – thing: gave us money to cover the cost of “upgrading” the elements that they prioritized.

  97. deRuiter says:

    Dear Trent, The first “entitlement” to cut is teacher’s pensions and health benefits for which they do not contribute or hardly contribute at all. The second thing to do is see that teachers also are not allowed to retire from their work at some silly age like when they have 30 years in the system. Make all teachers work until they are 67, 75 or whatever the age is, I like that one, ditto for all so called “public service” workers, a grand start towards balancing the budged and a bit of “fairness” while we are at it. Social security recipients have had money taken from them since they began to work, in my case from age 15 I was forced by congress to contribute to this Ponzi scheme where Congress and the President claimed there was a “Social Security Lock Box” to which sadly they had the key and looted the entire contents. The REAL FIRST entitlement end should be the US House and Senate. NO MORE PENSIONS, BENEFITS, GOLD PLATED HEALTH BENEFITS, LUXURY FOR LIFE. 2 terms for the Senate, 4 terms for the house, and OUT. Put that bunch of elitist swillers at the public trough on Social Security and see how soon Social Security is “reformed.” We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem with congress and the President unable to stop and this includes George (I never met a spending bill I didn’t sign) bush and George (read my lips, no new taxes) Bush as well.

  98. deRuiter says:

    Dear Marjorie Q8, Why would you want to marry this man again? You divorced once, and when you marry you will become responsible for his debts. Continue to live together. Keep seperate money. You’re not going to have children. There is no reason to allow this man who is horrible with money legal access to your money and house. If you marry him the creditors will come after you, and when you divorce again, you will be on the hook for his debts.

  99. Genny says:

    Q4-This question hit a nerve for me as I am dealing with the same situation with my mother. She lives in a senior complex close by and I do her laundry, do her shopping, bring her meals, pay her bills and prepare her daily medicine. She has a very nice lady come in to clean for her. Sometimes I think she should move in with us, but there are issues with that that Q4’s parents may be facing also.

    1) My husband and I both work so we are not home for part of the day-that leaves Mom just as alone as in her own place.

    2) Mom emphatically does not want to leave her own place, where she can set her own schedule. She stays up late and sleeps in until noon (and turns the TV up really loud to watch Fox News all the time :) She likes to come to our small house to eat and visit with us but we still have school age kids and dogs at home (and no cable TV) and it is often too much for her. She is always ready to come home to her own quiet place.

    I know at some point the situation will have to change, but keeping Mom in her own place as long as it is still possible is what we are trying to do.

  100. Kevin says:


    “Your father takes Social Security but not food stamps – views one as a “government handout” but not the other. But they both come from the government.”

    But this comes back to the point I made earlier. I think you’re viewing Social Security the same as any other government benefit. But as I said before, it’s actually more of a “forced savings” program. The government collects payments from you during your working career, invests the proceeds (har har), then eventually returns the money to you when you retire.

    It’s (in theory) not funded by general tax revenues. It’s funded by money you’ve already paid in. So it’s not taking the money from other areas of government, because the money was (supposed to be) yours all along.

  101. Kevin says:

    @Johanna: “Personally, I think that in the richest country the world has ever known, we can afford to give people a minimum standard of living that’s a little higher than ‘not starving to death.'”

    How does $14.1 trillion in debt make you the “richest country the world has ever known?” Open your eyes, Johanna – your country is 12 zeros on the wrong side of “broke.”

  102. Kevin says:


    “when you marry you will become responsible for his debts.”


    Marriage does not make one jointly liable for debts they did not sign for.

  103. Geoff Hart says:

    It’s rare enough that I disagree with Trent that I feel a need to call it out; this is one of those times, and it’s a biggie.

    Trent noted: “The root of the problem is pretty obvious if you look at our federal budget. Our entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – are simply unsustainable. If we continue them as-is, our nation will go bankrupt.”

    Sorry, no. That’s surprisingly simplistic for you. You usually do a better job of getting at the facts. The actual facts are that your single biggest budget item is military spending. Pretty much anything else pales in comparison.

    The roots of the problem is far deeper than your suggestion. The first and most obvious problem is unsustainable foreign military adventures. Harper’s Magazine recently published government statistics showing that Afghanistan and Iran are costing the U.S. around $1 billion daily. (Don’t trust the specific number. The important point is that it’s the right order of magnitude.) This amounts to more than $300 billion dollars annually–$1000 per U.S. citizen. That would easily fund all the programs you listed. If you don’t think you got your money’s worth from that expense, call your elected officials and yell at them. They’re not going to change tack without you.

    A more serious problem is the hollowing out of the U.S. economy. Exporting jobs to China and India moves all the tax income and beneficial side-effects of those jobs to the other countries and takes them directly out of the U.S. economy. A government that cared more about its citizens than about its richest taxpayers would revise the tax code to give tax breaks to companies that employ U.S. citizens instead of tax breaks for financial legerdemain tax evasion. I don’t have recent statistics on the number of huge U.S. companies that don’t pay any taxes; last time I saw the statistics, they were appalling. Give companies a reason to bring the jobs home and employ citizens of the country that’s granting them all the tax breaks.

    On a related note, I’ve worked for the last 20 years with Chinese and Indian colleagues abroad. They’re just as smart as we are. Anyone who tells you we can keep our economy going on knowledge sector jobs is lying. Ask Microsoft and Adobe why they moved so much of their programming jobs to India and China if you don’t believe me. When we’ve finished exporting all our manufacturing and knowledge jobs overseas, what jobs will remain: farming? (Not to diss farmers… just to point out that most urbanites aren’t interested in that particular career.)

    Third, make all companies that want to sell products in the U.S. financially responsible for testing the products to ensure they meet U.S. manufacturing, safety, and health standards. The tests would be done by Americans, not foreigners, but the companies who want to sell the products would pay the cost of the testing. They’d scream bloody murder, but why give them a free pass? If they want to sell things to us, they should design them right, then prove they’re safe to sell. They’ll still reap the economies of scale from overseas manufacturing, but at least we’ll have safe products. This would fund much of the activities of various government environmental, safety, and food and drug safety departments.

    I’m Canadian, so it’s easy to throw stones, but it’s worth pointing out that before the latest U.S.-induced recession, we were on track to eliminating our national debt, while still providing a higher quality of life in the U.S. (based on several WTO and UN surveys) and better social services than the ones you criticized. We’re not without our own flaws, but we show that it’s possible both in theory and in practice to have a capitalist democracy that sustains its citizens.

    The only thing stopping you is belief in various dogmas rather than examining the facts. As someone who has built a career encouraging people to challenge their assumptions, you can do better than your current critique. Try again, but this time with real numbers.

  104. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: And this comes back to my rebuttal of the point you made earlier. As a Social Security beneficiary, you’re receiving benefits from a program you’ve paid into, but you’re *not* receiving “your money” back again. There is no sub-account within the Social Security trust fund that says “Maria’s father” on it, or “Johanna” or “Kevin” (yes, I know you’re Canadian).

    And because of the way the program is structured, benefits rise more slowly than income does, so a lower-income person is likely to receive more in benefits, relative to what he paid in, than a higher-income person is. So if you *were* to track everything in sub-accounts like I described, you’d see that there was some shuffling of money away from the higher-income accounts and toward the lower-income accounts.

    But since there *are* no sub-accounts, all you can really say is that you support the program with your taxes, and then you receive benefits from it. And you can say exactly the same thing about food stamps. Maria’s father paid taxes while he was working (and continues to pay sales taxes and property taxes, etc.) and some of that money went to fund food stamps for other people. And now he is eligible for food stamps himself, and should not feel bad about taking them.

  105. Geoff Hart says:

    Forgot to mention: the current spending plans of most governments is no different from financing your debts purely using credit cards, something you’ve repeatedly warned people to avoid. Why are governments any different? Frugality works at all scales, not just the personal, and should also be government policy.

    I recently saw modern government spending described as the world’s largest legalized Ponzi scheme. The statement was so profound I just sat in awe and admired the keenness of the insight.


    “Your country is 12 zeros on the wrong side of broke.”
    That is the best, most succinct description of the current fiscal state of the federal government.

    Why not give everyone free food? I think we have already tried giving everyone “free” houses and that didn’t seem to work out too well.

    When it comes to restricting choices for food stamps, I like the old adage “Beggars can’t be choosers.” If you don’t like the government subsidized offering, work and find a way to pay for the choices you want to make.

  107. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: “How does $14.1 trillion in debt make you the “richest country the world has ever known?” Open your eyes, Johanna – your country is 12 zeros on the wrong side of “broke.””

    So many, many things wrong with this statement, I’m not sure where to start. How about with this: “Broke” is not the opposite of “rich.”


    @Goeff Hart
    Where did you get the data showing that military expenditures exceeded expenditures on SS, Medicare, and Medicaid? I would like to verify.

    Also, Mr. Obama indicated he would end two wars and has instead started a third war in Libya.

  109. joyce says:

    Kelly, I have been to all types of weddings and the best ones were small, intimate, casual and fun. Focus on the dress (have you ever seen an ugly bride?), pics and the vows…don’t forget to honor your Dad. It will be beautiful and memorable. You will always regret the debt after the glow of the wedding is gone. Good luck.

  110. Brenda W. says:

    @#5 – One more voice here to recommend that you have the wedding YOU want. My husband and I got married in a park, with only our immediate family members in attendance. I wore a knee length cotton dress. He wore jeans and a cotton shirt. He [jokingly] said later that’s when he knew he really loved me when I told him that he wasn’t going to have to wear a tux!!.

    The week before the wedding, we had a pot-luck open house for all the folks that would have otherwise been invited to a traditional wedding. That gave out of town aunts and uncles and such time to travel and visit with us.

    In the invitations for this “week-before-celebration” we also requested no gifts.

    A big financial goal for both of us as we headed into marriage was buying a home of our own. Soon after our marriage, we bought that home, putting 60% down for the down payment (and paid the mortgage off 7 years later).

    Had we had a “traditional” wedding, that home ownership goal would never would have been possible in the same time frame.

    As everyone else has said, IT IS YOUR DAY!! Don’t make a decision that is going to affect you financially and otherwise for years to come just to make others happy.

    I just saw a great quote today that applies here:
    “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”

    Or, slightly re-worded: “The reward for conformity is that everyone is happy except yourself.”

  111. Kevin says:


    But there are several differences.

    Taxes paid into Social Security are called out separately on your paystub. Taxes directed at food stamps just come out of the general tax collected.

    And there’s an expectation that EVERYONE (should they live long enough) will eventually collect Social Security. It’s not a welfare program. There’s no similar expectation for Food Stamps. If you live a fortunate and successful life, you may never need food stamps. But regardless of how successful you’ve been, EVERYONE is expected to collect Social Security.

  112. Fr33d0m says:

    It is heartening how many are pointing out their dissatisfaction with your political views. I’ll add mine to theirs.

    First off, Debt isn’t the problem–demand is. Up to the point where one political party decided to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip we were able to borrow at very low interest rates. While having so much debt is unsettling–and it is a longer term problem, it isn’t THE problem. If we ended the wars and the Bush tax cuts we could rapidly get back to a position where there is no long term problem with the debt.

    Second, Social Security has absolutely nothing to do with the debt. Fixing its future shortfalls is a very cheap proposition as long as we approach the fix now. Of course our current political dysfunction keeps that from happening.

    Now, I expect you to focus on debt and reducing it considering the subject of your BLOG, but I also expect you to look past trite and tired pseudo solutions.

    We were on track to pay down the debt this decade. That was prior to the 2000 elections. And while lots has happened that has impacted our capacity to do this, none has had a larger negative impact than the Bush tax cuts. These cuts came from a budget surplus that could have been used to pay-down the debt. Instead, it was given back.

    I agree that there is plenty of blame to go around, but part of the problem is the lame attempt to place that blame equally amongst everyone. Our current situation certainly points this our rather starkly. On one hand you have a party deciding to use as a bargaining chip, the raising of the debt limit to pay for things they already voted for. Add to that, that same party refusing to allow any new revenue as a compromise to get what they want, right up to the last minute. That was the same party that voted for the tax cuts without program cuts. The same party that put two wars and Medicare Part D off budget (onto the debt). On the other hand you have the other party whose only blame is trying to gain some revenue in order to address the real problem with the economy. That isn’t equal, still so many want to be sure they focus on blaming the other party.

  113. Kevin says:


    And I never said the US is broke. The US is looking *up* at broke. The US would have to improve their financial situation by $14 trillion to make it to “broke.”

    How can you, with a straight face, claim that the US is richer than the countries LENDING it all this money?

  114. Evita says:

    Trent, please explain how the U.S. economy can provide jobs for 70-year old seniors when millions of young, educated/trained, able and willing people cannot land a decent job ?

  115. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: “Taxes paid into Social Security are called out separately on your paystub. Taxes directed at food stamps just come out of the general tax collected.”

    So if we printed on everybody’s pay stub, “$X of your income taxes go to food stamps, $Y go to public libraries, $Z go to scientific research on animals with funny names…” how would that make things any different? Other than making everyone’s pay stubs a lot longer. (Although, my employer distributes pay stubs electronically now, so I suppose it would be doable.)

    “And there’s an expectation that EVERYONE (should they live long enough) will eventually collect Social Security. It’s not a welfare program. There’s no similar expectation for Food Stamps.”

    But there could be, which, if you were paying attention, was the very point I was making back at the beginning of this discussion. If we turned food stamps into a program that benefits everyone, people wouldn’t have to feel bad about receiving benefits that they’re eligible for.

    “If you live a fortunate and successful life, you may never need food stamps. But regardless of how successful you’ve been, EVERYONE is expected to collect Social Security.”

    If you live a fortunate and successful life, you may never need Social Security – you may have amassed enough money on your own to fund a perfectly comfortable retirement without it. But I’ve never heard of anyone declining their Social Security benefits for that reason – you’re eligible for benefits, so you take them, and nobody sees anything wrong with that.

    Compare and contrast to food stamps, where you have people thinking there’s something wrong with taking benefits for which they are eligible, on the grounds that they don’t “need” them.

  116. Johanna says:

    @Fr33d0m: Well said. I have one thing to add:

    “Up to the point where one political party decided to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip we were able to borrow at very low interest rates.”

    We’re *still* able to borrow at very low interest rates. Throughout the debt ceiling debate, the interest rate on 10-year treasuries has gone down. Even in the wake of the dreaded S&P downgrade, the interest rates on treasuries went down. People are practically paying us to take their money.

    The fact that stock prices are going down and bond prices are going up (interest rates down = prices up) means that “the market” isn’t worried a bit about the size of the debt or the prospects for repayment. Instead, it’s worried about the economy. Congress, the White House, and the news media would do well to take note.

  117. Tom says:

    And there’s an expectation that EVERYONE (should they live long enough) will eventually collect Social Security. It’s not a welfare program.
    Well, that’s not entirely true, as there are portions of Social Security that go towards welfare. For example, guardians of severely disabled children receive SS money to help defray costs. Kids over 18 but still in high school with a disabled parent receive money from SS. Wives who never held a job and claim benefits after divorce or death would be a form of welfare (granted, that’s got to be a very small number of collectors)

    I’d like to object to people who don’t understand life expectancy (or Trent’s argument). I’m sure in 1940 people didn’t believe roofers and landscapers OR white collar employees would lead healthy lives at 70. Innovation in medicine and a better understanding of how to be generally healthy has made it a possibility.
    However, the point Trent makes is that Social Security has somehow turned into a pension when it was intended to be more like poverty insurance. The fact that general laborers (whose percent of our population I assume is declining with manufacturing in the USA) may not live as long to collect it isn’t the point, because it shouldn’t have been considered retirement savings.
    I’m young and work a relatively easy office job. I get my annual SS statement soon, but I remember doing the math last year and realizing that I don’t expect to live long enough to get back all the money I expect to pay into Social Security either. I’m with DOT in supporting a transition to giving us 11% to save as we wish (IRAs, 401ks, whatever).

  118. Katie says:

    I’m with DOT in supporting a transition to giving us 11% to save as we wish (IRAs, 401ks, whatever).

    I’m not really sure why people think employers would start giving everyone the amount of money they’re currently forced to contribute to social security in wages. That doesn’t strike me as super likely.

  119. Kevin says:

    Johanna, are you seriously suggesting that the government should buy EVERYONE’s groceries, just so that poor people “don’t feel bad?”

    Do you have any idea how much that would cost? Or what a slipperly slope you’d have started down?

    Why doesn’t everyone get a housing subsidy, while we’re at it? Maybe transportation vouchers for gas or bus tickets? Monthly Sears gift cards, for clothing?

    Gee, that sounds great! Big Brother will take care of EVERYTHING for us! Utopia!

  120. Rachel says:

    This is in response to Trent’s mention of life expectancy.

    There tends to be a misconception about how much longer people are living today. From the book The Longevity Project:

    “The average life expectancy of an American born …[around 1910] was forty-seven years. The average life expectancy of an American born in recent years is about seventy-nine. Still, it is totally incorrect to conclude that today’s middle-aged adults will live many, many years longer in retirement than did their predecessors.

    The error arises from the fact that average life expectancy is computed from birth…The twentieth century saw tremendous advances in sanitation, housing, food supply, and vaccines, leading to a dramatic plunge in deaths during infancy and childhood. So-called modern medical cures have played a relatively minor role in increasing adult life span, something most people do not understand.”

    I’m not suggesting Social Security isn’t in trouble; I only want to clarify Trent’s misleading statement regarding life expectancy.

  121. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: I can’t be bothered to repeat myself for you. Go read my original comment (#50). I’ll be here when you get back. Thanks.

  122. Angie says:

    I wish there was a “like” or “dislike” button for these comments.

    Oh, and @RANDOM ANONYMOUS comment 106, I think you hit the nail on the head. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

  123. Johanna says:

    (Also, Kevin, you might want to look up what “Big Brother” actually means, because I don’t think it’s what you think it means.)

  124. Tracy says:

    Ok, people do realize that ‘wealthiest nation’ applies to the wealth generated by the corporations and people in the US, not the ampunt of the govt debt?

    Or is the ideal now a dictatorship where people live in poverty but there is no govt debt because the govt takes all and gives nothing back?

  125. Andrea says:

    To Johanna, and all the other pro-food stamps posters…

    I honestly don’t see what the problem is if people feel bad about taking food stamps and don’t sign up. Increasing the number of those who mooch off everyone else in this society is not the path to prosperity. If they can make do without, let them!

    Also, if money that I earn is taken by higher taxes driven by SNAP costs, that is taking away my right to spend my hard-earned money on something I need or want. So I have trouble understanding why someone else is more entitled to what I earn than I am, just because they are poor.

    As a side note, I do donate to charity privately and I do volunteer work because I do want to help tthose who are less fortunate. I just have a problem with people who seem not to realize that public benefit money doesn’t just fall out of the sky… it does come from somewhere. (The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money…)

  126. Jonathan says:

    After catching up on reading the comments today I would like to point out something that I find interesting. Two of the primary points being discussed are Trent’s suggestions for fixing the US debt issue (Including increase the minimum age for social security) and Ellen’s desire to see her grandmother cared for in her old age.

    Based on Ellen’s post and some of the comments it is obvious that there are many elderly in this country that are forced to rely on their family for support (either physically or financially). Increasing the age limits for Social Security and Medicaid is going to mean that even more elderly are unable to support themselves financially, which in turn is going to place an increased financial burden on their families.

    I hope that whatever reforms are made can be made in such a way as to not negatively impact those nearing retirement. Likewise, I hope that the changes are made in time that those who will be negatively impacted have sufficient time to make the necessary adjustments to their plans.

    Too many people currently rely on Social Security as their sole income for retirement. While it is very true that this was not the intent of the program, it doesn’t change the expectations of millions of Americans. I don’t think it would be right for the US government to promise Social Security to people for most of their lives, therefore creating an expectation in people’s minds regarding its availability, then change the system drastically and expect that people would immediately adjust to the new way of thinking regarding retirement.

  127. Tracy says:


    There are a couple of issues being conflated. There *isn’t* a problem with people who don’t take food stamps because they can honestly make it on their own without them. Since the amount of food stamps is determined is based on the state level – but food costs aren’t completely equal across the state. Someone able to grow their own food, or who lives in an area where *other* costs are cheap (housing, transportation, whatever) is going to be able to get buy more comfortably than somebody not in that situation, even if they make similar incomes. The problem comes about if people are ashamed and not taking it – even though it seriously hurts them – *and society* by not taking them.

    I want to bunny trail on the fact that the affects are widerspread than the individual. For example, poor nutrition (and not everybody who doesn’t take food stamps and ‘thinks they can make it’ is adequately nourished, even if they’re not starving ) – that leads to increased incidents of disease. Which not only leads to increased burden on the healthcare system and other burdens on the government, in cases where it can evolve a pandemic, it’s a healthrisk to EVERYBODY, including, well, you.

    Then there’s the cost to our future. It’s not a vacuum – you even mentioned earlier that you, personally, don’t want to see children starving. That you’re ok with food programs that address children specifically. Well, a disproportionate number of food stamps ARE for children – children who deserve to be able to eat. All children. I would say all people but even for those who make the argument ‘the people could work’ – children can’t. Not unless we change back to a world in which child labor is common.

    Second, there’s the myth that people on food stamps don’t work – that you’re supporting them. I know that it’s already been addressed, but it can’t be emphasized enough – being on food stamps and working = NOT mutually exclusive.

    There’s another sidebar that there’s a pragmatic view that by giving people at least a subsistence level existence, we’re increasing public safety in general. People without food and people without opportunities lead to revolutions.

    ANd it’s kind of a sad and *ugly* commentary on the world that many of the EXACT SAME PEOPLE who are anti-food stamp are also anti-raising the minimum wage. They may not consciously wish it, but their stances pretty much state that they LIKE the idea of a permanent underclass. Children who are malnourished, parents who can’t support them – those are the kids that have to drop out of school at 14 and 15 and get a subpar wage job not because they’re not intelligent, not because they couldn’t contribute to society but because society is deliberately raising barriers to prevent them from doing so.

    (I am not even going to get into the very lengthy ways in which the nation’s economy was originally built on the backs of labor -working and slave- and that they haven’t proportionally benefited in opportunity)

    Nobody thinks that benefit money falls out of the sky. It’s all part of a contract with the government. But we’ve already established, you received discounted education paid for by others. Maybe you’ll pay that back in your lifetime through your taxes, maybe you won’t. We have all – every single one of us – received benefits. Our education. Roads. Sewer systems. Law. Not everybody benefits the same way and to the same extent. Food stamps is just one of those benefits that not everybody benefits the same degree, on an individual level. Just like somebody who only graduated high school and didn’t benefit directly from university education benefits in other ways from other people receiving an education. (And those people aren’t necessarily the same as the people making minimum wage, since I used to work in the internet industry with a lot of self-taught individuals who made triple digit figures)

    (this is actually the abridged version of the comment *facepalm*)

  128. Tracy says:

    That was my pragmatic and cynical reasons, althought there are a lot more.

    But I really would like to point out the insensitivity of people who keep saying things like ‘choose to get a job’ or ‘choose to work’ considering the current state of unemployment and how for many people (of ALL classes) jobs simply DO NOT EXIST.

    And I’d like to also point out that food stamps are NOT A PERMANENT STATE OF AFFAIRS. For many, many people, food stamps are a temporary measure – one that lasts a few months or a few years. Sometimes because of unemployment like we currently have. Sometimes by loss due to a natural disaster. Sometimes due to a temporary health condition that leaves somebody unable to work. People don’t go on food stamps and that’s it, food stamps for life.

  129. Tracy says:

    Also, Andrea, I’d love it if you could read the link at the following (man, i hope this goes through if I remove the http)

    It’s not that this is a typical or atypical story – everybody’s story is different. But it’s a story that might help remove some of your preconceived notions of ‘who’ is on food stamps and ‘why’

    The person who wrote this is not MORE deserving of food stamps than somebody whose poverty is more systematic and longterm. I believe everybody should be able to eat – and that it shouldn’t be dependent on if you’re ‘good poor’ or not. But it’s more specifically to address the simplicity of the idea that people on food stamps mooch and people not on food stamps pay for it and that there’s not an overlap between the two.


  130. Fr33d0m says:


    I’ve been away from the news for a couple days and used that wording so as not to exclude the possibility that things had changed.

  131. Johanna says:

    @Andrea: I just have a couple of things to add to Tracy’s excellent points.

    First, you do not actually have the “right” to spend 100% of your “hard-earned money” as you choose, because that would imply the right not to pay any taxes at all. And the government has the right to collect taxes. It’s in the Constitution.

    Second, I sincerely think it’s awesome that you donate lots of your time and money to charity. I do too, and I wish more people would. But private charity is not and has never been enough to deal with the problem of poverty – otherwise, governments would never have had to play a role to begin with. They figured this out, if I remember my history correctly, in the 16th century, under Queen Elizabeth I. I don’t think we want to regress quite that far.


    Since they had figured this out in 16th century England, why does poverty still exist in England? How many centuries will it take the government to eradicate poverty?

  133. Johanna says:

    @RAND: Well, the poverty-related problems England is experiencing right now have a lot to do with their elected leaders willfully ignoring the lessons of history. So until they stop doing that, I’m not confident that poverty will ever be eradicated completely.

    (There. Now I’ve opened a whole new can of worms to play with. Have fun.)

  134. AnnJo says:

    “I think it’s very sad that so many people view food stamps as something akin to charity . . . rather than as something they have a right to have.”

    If I have a “right” to be fed for free by someone else who is otherwise a stranger to me, where does that duty on the part of my food provider come from?

    As charity, it is clear that the obligation is either a moral one, usually seen as imposed by religious doctrine, or a voluntary reciprocal one, as in “I’ll take care of you now in the hope/expectation that you’ll take care of me later if/when I need it.”

    But a legal right to be fed by a stranger necessarily implies a legal right to force that stranger to do it, against their will and by threat of violence if necessary. A private individual asserting that kind of “right” directly against another was prohibited by the 13th Amendment, when slavery was abolished. But Johanna would argue that, asserted indirectly, via the agency of government, that right is so fundamental no one should even be squeamish about demanding it. One person’s need itself creates another person’s duty.

    If the 13th Amendment were being considered under today’s standards, slaveholders who really needed their slaves for survival would have been allowed to keep them.

  135. Tracy says:


    Honestly, that is an absolutely BS argument.

    The RIGHT is conferred by the US government is one that was *willingly taken on* by the US government as representative of the people, as part of their obligations.

    You, individually, are not feeding a stranger (begrudgingly). You, an individual, are paying your taxes which support a number of different public services. The government is taking taxes from people and allocating them to different sources that benefit the public in different ways. To twist that around to support slavery is – horrific and ugly way that I can not even articulate because I literally want to throw up right now.

  136. Johanna says:

    @AnnJo: So you’re equating taxation with slavery?

    That is very nearly the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

  137. Tracy says:

    @johanna thanks, you may be the only thing saving my sanity today. You and a self-imposed MST3k marathon.

  138. Andrea says:

    @AnnJo: That is very nearly the most insightful thing I’ve seen on this post… Especially from anyone with the syllable “Jo” in their name…

    @Tracy: I’m not sure how you have established that my education was subsidized. Last time I checked, you actually don’t know anything about my education, because I haven’t told you.

    @Joanna: While we are on the topic of ignoring history’s lessons… I once heard about a large north Eurasian country that implemented a brilliant poverty-reducing scheme where everyone gave all their money to the government, and the government provided everything that everyone needed. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” I haven’t heard much about it lately though… does anybody know how that turned out for them? Maybe we could use that as a history lesson too!

  139. Tracy says:


    My apologies, I assumed you were the Andrea that was on the thread previously. If you are a different Andrea, they don’t. And I gave you far more credit for learning because of it, since you agree now with AnnJo

  140. jim says:

    If other people getting food stamps from the government is like you being enslaved … then … is the military giving the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test to high school students like someone tying you to a chair and forcing you to watch 18 straight days of the Full House reruns?

    Cause I think thats about how it would work out using that logic.

  141. Tracy says:


    Hahaha. I platonically love you. Even as I am emotionally damaged by even thinking about a FH marathon.

  142. Johanna says:

    Can I declare jim the winner of the thread? Or is it too early?

  143. AnnJo says:

    Johanna said, “government has the right to collect taxes. It’s in the Constitution.” This is not correct.

    The government has the POWER to collect taxes, and that power was granted by the founders in the Constitution subject to the reserved power to change that grant. If collecting taxes were a governmental “right” it could not be taken away by citizen action.

    The only rights described and secured by the Constitution were for individuals as against states and the federal government and for states as against the federal government.

    A government that has “rights” as against the people it governs does not have citizens, it has subjects. We’re headed in that direction, but it’s still a little too early to adopt the vocabulary of authoritarianism.

  144. Johanna says:

    My apologies for the error in terminology. I think, though, that my point still stands, which is that individuals do not have the right not to pay taxes.

  145. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, if you had read my post carefully, you would not have had to ask whether I was equating taxation itself with slavery. I wasn’t. I was equating the forcible compulsion of one person to provide for the private needs of another person to slavery. Which is pretty much what slavery is – being compelled against your will to toil for the personal benefit of another individual to whom you have no particular personal duty.

    Providing food to a person is not a “public service,” Tracy. It is a private service to that person. Various rationalizations are put forward to suggest that there is a “public benefit” to feeding people sufficient to justify the use of compulsion to do that, but they are just that – rationalizations. Those same rationalizations could effectively justify compelling the giving of flat-screen TVs (“people won’t feel compelled to riot and loot for them so the public will benefit”), Prada shoes (“if women’s self-esteem is boosted, they will be more able to avoid domestic violence and the public will benefit”) and Iphones (“they will help build community and the public will benefit”).

    I don’t know whether private charity would be enough to “deal with poverty.” Perhaps not. Trillions of dollars of government funding have not successfully “dealt with poverty,” either, though. Johanna and Tracy might argue that it just wasn’t enough trillions, while I might suspect that a lot of that money was spent corruptly, unwisely or even counterproductively. A famous Democrat, Sen. Patrick Moynihan, speculated 40+ years ago that some “anti-poverty” programs would have unintended negative consequences, and his predictions seem to have come true to some degree.

    However, the fact that a problem can be minimized by coercive action does not necessarily make the coercion OK. Most people recognize that at some level. For instance:

    Lots of sick people need kidneys, and most healthy people have a spare, but we don’t draft kidney donors.

    I was tested and signed up with the Bone Marrow Donor Registry more than 20 years ago and everyone on that list is a volunteer, yet that is enough to find matches for 85% of searches.** Yet we could compel everyone to be tested, and compel good matches to undergo harvesting, and save some more lives. But we don’t.

    To be consistent, Johanna and Tracy would argue we should. After all, if one person’s need creates another person’s legal duty, why not?

  146. Riki says:

    I don’t think Johanna and Tracy would argue for compulsory organ donation at all. You have twisted their points into something ridiculous and unrecognizable.

  147. Johanna says:

    AnnJo, this discussion is about food stamps. If you have an argument to make against food stamps, feel free to make that argument. Drawing up all these nonsensical analogies and slippery slopes only makes you look foolish.

    To answer your question, no, I am not in favor of compulsory organ donation. Why not? Because I believe in bodily autonomy.

  148. Andrea says:

    Johanna, can you please explain why you believe in bodily autonomy, but not in the autonomy of what to do with the product of one’s labor?

  149. Johanna says:

    Well, the usual way I explain it is that taxation is OK, whereas compulsory organ donation isn’t. But if you don’t accept *that*, there’s not much else I can do for you.

    Suffice it to say that one can simultaneously believe, and many people do, that food stamps are right but compulsory organ donation is wrong. Now, let’s return to the topic at hand, please.

  150. Katie says:

    Andrea and AnnJo, unless you’re willing to make an argument that all taxation everywhere is wrong, I’m not really sure what the point of comparing it to forced organ donation is. If you’re not, then you’ve already admitted there are differences between the two and you need to explain at what point taxation tips over into being like forced organ donation, which you have not.

    And if you are trying to make the argument that all taxation everywhere is wrong, this is kind of a pointless conversation and there’s not really any point in us continuing it.

  151. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, Andrea asks you why bodily autonomy should be a shield against compelled organ donation but not a shield against compelled labor for another’s personal benefit, and your answer is that one is OK and the other isn’t. But my arguments make me look foolish?

    I agree that many people can and do believe compulsion in the service of food stamps is right but in organ donation it’s wrong. I suggest though that the basic argument in support of food stamps – that person A’s need is enough of a claim on person B to justify B being compelled to feed A – applies equally well to organ donation and the only distinguishing factor is your personal distaste for one and not the other.

    Not every dip in the road is a slippery slope, but there are in fact slippery slopes. All you have to do is go back to the inception of most any of what are now called entitlement programs to see how much more intrusive, costly and authoritarian they have become than was predicted.

  152. Katie says:

    At what point does taxation start equaling organ donation, AnnJo?

  153. Johanna says:

    Sorry, I should have explained – Usually the question of bodily autonomy versus financial autonomy (or whatever you want to call it) comes up in a different context: Why is it OK for the law to compel noncustodial parents to pay child support, but not for a father-to-be to compel his partner to have an abortion? My explanation is that the law can exert a degree of control over your finances that it can’t exert over your body – for example, taxation is OK but forced organ donation isn’t. Because that’s supposed to be self-evident. I hope that clears up my earlier post.

    Anyway, AnnJo, are you opposed to the food stamp program because of what it does right now, or are you opposed to it because you’re seriously worried it will lead to forced organ donation? Because those are two different issues, and I’d like to know which one I should be addressing.

  154. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, in the first place, I don’t “seriously worry” about political issues. I vote, make meaningful (to me given my budget) political contributions, take what steps I can to protect myself, and try to keep my blood pressure on an even keel about it at all times. At least I invested on the premise that Obama would win and do what he has done, so there’s been a silver lining to the cloud.

    But to address your question: I believe that the mindset that declares food stamps a “right” (as opposed to governmentally organized charity) is the same mindset that can bring itself to justify ever greater subordinations of individuals and members of disfavored groups in the service of favored groups. I also believe it encourages a sense of entitlement in recipients that is bad for the recipients, the economy and social order.

  155. Tracy says:

    I am not even going to dignify the whole organ donation with a reply.

    I do, however, want to address “Providing food to a person is not a “public service,” Tracy. It is a private service to that person. ”

    Um. No. That’s nonsense. Just because something provides a benefit to an individual doesn’t mean that it’s not a public service. The fact that your taxes (and mine) pay for the upkeep of a road that neither of us ever USE doesn’t make it a ‘private service’ for the people who do use it. It’s not a *private* service, it’s an *individual benefit*

    There is a difference between somebody *individually benefiting* from something and it being a *private* benefit.

  156. Tracy says:

    Also: “the same mindset that can bring itself to justify ever greater subordinations of individuals and members of disfavored groups in the service of favored groups.”

    Ahhh yes. The secret ruling class of the impoverished who can’t afford food. I FORGOT they were the one who everybody catered to. Pun intended.

  157. AnnJo says:

    Tracy, if providing someone a meal is a public service, what about providing her a flat-screen TV, a pair of Prada shoes, a ticket to Disneyland, the services of a gigolo? In fact, under your definition of public service is there ANYTHING that the government could provide a person that would be a private benefit?

    The difference between a public road and a meal is that anyone CAN use any particular public road, and even if they personally don’t, their food and consumer goods may be transported on that road and it may serve other uses within the broader community, but only one person can eat and digest a particular meal.

    I understand that there are people who believe, and apparently you are one, that all of our needs (and wants, too?) should be provided by “the government,” with OTM – other people’s money. This is simply a fundamental difference in viewpoints between us. You regard my views as “nonsense,” and you are free to do so, but since that allows you to refuse to think about them, I imagine that you are often at a loss to understand the outcomes of elections, the workings of Congress, etc.

    Meanwhile, I have given considerable thought to the views of people who think like you, who may be close to a majority in this country, and I’ve invested accordingly.

    Sadly, it’s paying off. I’d much rather it didn’t. You will never have to leave the country to be safe from people like me. I don’t think I have a “right” to your stuff or a right to tell you how to spend it. Obviously, you can’t say the same. I may think you SHOULD help poor people, but I’m willing to take No for an answer. You think I MUST help them, and WON’T take No for an answer. I get it.

  158. Tracy says:

    *rolls eyes*

    You haven’t comprehended a word I said. You obviously haven’t given “considerable thought” – you’ve instead spent a lot of time making up what you think I and ‘people like me’ think.

  159. Tracy says:

    (in other words, address something I actually said rather than making a bunch of crap up and spending a lot of pointless energy trying to refute that)

  160. mary m says:

    I wish I could get the 20 minutes of my life that I spent reading these comments back.

  161. Katie says:

    AnnJo, it sounds like you’re focusing on this public/private distinction to jump to a bizarre conclusion that thinking food stamps are a public service = thinking that every need should be provided by the government = thinking the government should by everyone flat screens. And you wonder why people aren’t seriously addressing your points? If this is the conclusion you’ve come to by seriously thinking about the views of people who are “close to a majority in this country,” you did a poor job.

  162. Johanna says:

    “I also believe it encourages a sense of entitlement in recipients that is bad for the recipients, the economy and social order.”

    The social order. It’s bad for the social order when poor people feel they have a right to have enough food to eat. Does that mean it’s good for the social order when some 15% of the population (about how many receive food stamps right now) don’t have enough food to eat? Or rather, when they have no other option but to come groveling to you for your private charity, so you can give to (some of) them and prove to yourself what a good and moral person you are?

    I think this fits in very well with Tracy’s earlier comment about the permanent underclass.

  163. kristine says:

    Not feeding hungry people leads to desperation. If my child is starving, I would do whatever I had to to feed them If there were not job, I would be forced to do what I had to, to feed my child. Anyone who thinks they would watch their child slowly die, rather than go around the rules to feed them, is kidding themselves.

    It is in society’s best interest to avoid about 15% of the population being desperate for food. It also breed illness, which travels across class barriers rather easily. It’s in our own best interest to avoid starvation in the streets.

    That said, if the social order, and the way things are run, do not allow for a minimum wage for a standard work week that will allow a person to have a roof, clothing, and food, then you can expect an impoverished class of working poor at the bottom. It is a very complicated issue, as prices and wages vary dramatically across the nation. I think some of our state entitlements are an attempt to address those discrepancies.

    In any case you will have people who may fail to provide for themselves because they are emotionally dysfunctional, not blessed with an average or better IQ, or physically handicapped. If you rely solely on private charities to help these people, then you are saying help for them is optional, not a public priority, and those who may remain untended, you are willing to let waste away, go homeless, or starve… because you personally cannot be everywhere for everyone, you rely on others to help those people. Even if you work for you local food pantry. And what if others just don’t?

    If you institutionalize the help, and say- you know what? We want to make sure no hungry babies are left to die, or family left at the curb, because we can’t rely totally on “good will” in “bad times” in every single nook and cranny of our country. So we are going to have a safety net to make sure that doesn’t happen to our most vulnerable. Uhm…that’d be government help. Not saying it is run well, but the idea may be from the country’s Christian roots- I am my brother’s keeper, and putting guaranteed help in the form of money behind that sentiment.

  164. kristine says:

    PS- the SS surplus was sucked away into the general budget under Reagan. It was deemed accessible for everyday costs. Had it been left untouchable, this thread would not exist.

    Such a bad idea that was. How many of us here would take our emergency fund, and decide it was Ok to spend it on whatever, whenever, and expect it to still be there when we need it, from future paychecks?

    And to those who want their SS money not taken out, so they can invest it as they wish… what will we do when a decent portion of the population invests poorly, and is left with not enough to live on? Blame the stock market, and let them eat cake? The idea that everyone will invest wisely is a fantasy. You might- but eventually you will have bail out those who do not, or again, have a desperate underclass that will go outside the lines to survive, and spread disease.

  165. AnnJo says:


    There are people who, through no fault of their own, cannot produce enough to take care of themselves. Call them Class 1. They are not the real problem in declaring a “right” to have other people take care of you, because that declaration is not going to change their behavior much. They may be less grateful for the efforts of others to feed them, but so what? If we could limit that “right” to those people, I might still find the idea philosophically questionable, but of no practical effect.

    However, among the people who CAN produce enough to take care of themselves, there is a very sizable proportion who do so only out of sheer necessity. Call them Class 2. Once they come to believe they have a “right” to be taken care of and there is no shame to it, they will gladly give up the often unpleasant chore of doing for themselves.

    Call the people who have both an ability and a willingness to take care of themselves Class 3.

    Among Classes 2 and 3, some may and some may not have the ability to produce enough extra to take care of Class 1 people as well as themselves.

    Obviously, as a mindset of entitlement grows, so will the Class 2 population.

    The burdens of production on Class 3 will become heavier and more unpleasant, while the benefits of their hard work are spread more and more thinly. They will not even be entitled to respect and admiration for the burdens they bear in taking care of others or, as you put it, a sense that they are “good and moral persons,” because the recipients of their efforts have a “right” to what they get.

    Sadly, the living standard of Class 1 is bound to suffer also, since Class 1 must share the shrinking excess production of Class 3 with the burgeoning Class 2 population.

    Eventually, Class 3 starts to bail. If they’re Italian, they move to an underground economy. If they are American, they’ll take their businesses overseas, retire at 55, or join the Tea Party. Classes 1 and 2 become angry since their “rights” are being cut, and become ever more demanding and strident in their victimhood. They take to the streets, burning cars and looting shops, as in France, Greece, the U.K., and the occasional U.S. inner city.

    As I said, a widespread sense of entitlement to the fruits of others’ labor is not conducive to good social order.

    I hope no one who is truly helpless feels too ashamed to seek help, but a healthy sense of shame in not standing on one’s own two feet is required to keep the Class 2 population within manageable limits.

  166. Johanna says:

    First point: You’re ignoring the fact that as technology advances, societies grow richer, and it takes less and less total labor to provide for the basic needs of everyone. A thousand or more years ago, it would have been unthinkable to say that everyone has the right to enough food to eat, because some years, it was all they could do to ensure that *anyone* had enough food to eat. But today, food production is just a small fraction of our total effort as a society, so making sure everyone has enough to eat is much less of a burden.

    I’m reminded of the novel “Brave New World.” The society portrayed is supposed to be a dystopia, and in many ways it is, but it also gets a lot of things right (or at least, more right than we seem to be getting them). Their working classes (gammas, deltas, and epsilons, or thereabouts – it’s been a while since I read the book) are so efficient that they only work about four hours a day, and get to spend the rest of their time enjoying themselves. (And that’s with a lot of waste built into the system, like clothes that are designed to fall apart after a few uses.) In your supposedly superior free market, you’d instead have half the population working eight hours a day – or, if you’d like to roll back labor laws, 25% of the population working 16 hours a day, and probably still not earning enough to live on – and everyone else left with nothing.

    What kind of social order would that give you?

    Second point: Your division of people into class 1, class 2, and class 3 is very neat and tidy, but perhaps too neat and tidy to accurately describe reality. Sure, if you give people a choice between government benefits (providing basic food and shelter, but not much more) and a minimum-wage job where they work lousy, unpredictable hours and are treated like dirt, a lot of people would probably take the benefits. But if you add the option of a job, maybe doing a lot of the same tasks, but with a wage that provides a better standard of living, and decent working conditions, I’d guess that a lot more people would take the job. Which of these people is class 1, class 2, or class 3?

    The point being, if a strong social safety net gives employers an incentive not to abuse their workers, that’s a good outcome, too.

    Third point: If you think the riots in the UK are about lazy people being upset that they now have to work for a living, I suggest that you educate yourself about that situation before we discuss it further.

  167. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, you said:

    “if you give people a choice between government benefits . . . and a minimum-wage job where they work lousy, unpredictable hours and are treated like dirt, a lot of people would probably take the benefits. But if you add the option of a job, maybe doing a lot of the same tasks, but with a wage that provides a better standard of living, and decent working conditions, I’d guess that a lot more people would take the job.”

    I don’t believe any employee should be “treated like dirt.” That being said, a lot of jobs are inherently unpleasant, may involve lousy hours and/or unpleasant working conditions, and just simply are not worth a lot of money to the employer. Given the alternative of government benefits, it’s pretty clear a lot of people are choosing the benefits, and the work is either not getting done or being done by the diminishing number of people who would be ashamed of collecting benefits, or immigrants until they themselves can qualify for the benefits. I gather you would like to take the shame out of it completely, taking away one of the primary motivators for people to do such work.

  168. Tracy says:


    So you literally want people’s choices to be a life of shame OR working “lousy hours and/or unpleasant working conditions” for low money. You DO want a permanent underclass.

    You know, there is a third option. Paying people a living wage, so that those crap jobs are worth doing because it gives somebody a better standard of living than otherwise. After all, if the work needs to be done, it deserves being paid fairly.

  169. Johanna says:

    If the jobs you have in mind really are worth so little to the employers, then maybe they don’t need to get done at all. Why isn’t that an option – just eliminate the jobs, and have those tasks not get done?

    If the answer is that the jobs are somehow essential to the running of the business, then maybe the employer needs to rethink how much the job is “worth” to her. Maybe she’s used to thinking of the job as “not worth a lot of money” because there’s always been a steady supply of people so desperate for work that they’re willing to do the job for very little. But maybe she’d actually be willing to pay a lot more if the market conditions demanded it.

  170. Johanna says:

    …and furthermore, if the employer can’t profitably run her business if she has to pay all her employees living wages, then maybe her business does not need to exist. Similarly, “I can’t make a profit without slave labor!” is not a valid reason to reinstate slavery. Either find a way to make it work with living wages, or find a new idea for a business.

  171. kristine says:

    An Jo- I suggest you see the movie “A Better Life”. It might open your eyes regarding the demeaning out of hand and blanket comment you made regarding immigrants. Unless you are native American- you are a descendant of immigrants.

  172. kristine says:

    I suggest everyone see “The Corporation” which deals with the failed logic of designating corporations as entities, and releases the board of directors, CEO, and such from personal liability. It also releases them from any social conscience. In fact it REQUIRES, by law, that the shareholders be the only consideration in making decisions. For instance, if the cost benefit is to sell a dangerous toy, as the penalty if caught is far less than the projected profit, the CEO is correct in selling the toy, the penalty being a built-in cost. Cost benefit analysis is the end-all and be-all. In essence, the corporation is a sociopath, not beholden to anyone but the profit margin. The corporation in today’s construct has no interest in societal safeguards, or the lives of employees, or customers, except as it effects the bottom line.

  173. Aaron says:

    About the debt ceiling issue:

    I’m very surprised Trent thinks this is a spending problem only.

    I completely agree first off spending on some programs should be cut via various means. Fixing social security makes complete sense by increasing the min age to draw benefits. Completely on board with that.

    But past that, if we’re gonna be cutting spending, it’s defense. The stats above saying defense is just under 20% isn’t accurate. That doesn’t include discretionary spending. We’re far higher than that. That means wrapping up the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq somehow, some way, without jeopardizing long term interests.

    But what completely blows my mind is the complete lack of mentioning the revenue problem. The vast majority of the deficits run up the last few years were:

    A. Needed stimulus to get the economy back on track.
    B. Massive loss of income tax revenue from the tanking economy, as people became unemployed, or earned less.

    Before we even address the long term budgetary issues, we have to get the economy back on track, even if that means increasing the national debt in the short run.

    The reality is the US ran up massive deficits during most of the 2000’s, even during the economic good times, which fueled an economic bubble that popped. Just like any other recession, deficit spending unfortunately has to be used as part of the solution to fix the economy.

    History however shows us that the last time we faced a recession this stubborn and severe (Great Depression), it took record deficits during WWII, followed by a period in the 1950s where we taxed the richest Americans by over 90%. I don’t think we’ll need that steep of a tax increase, but our tax structure will have to become more steeply progressive, and taxes must go up in the long run.

    Show me a politician who’s willing to advocate that, and show me Americans who are willing to put their ideologies aside and do what’s been proven to work. I see very few of either.

  174. slccom says:

    All of you wanting to cut defense: Let me quote Robert Heinlein: “There is nothing so expensive as the world’s second best military.”

  175. Johanna says:

    @slccom: Even if there’s truth to that quote, which I do not grant, the US currently spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. We have plenty of room to cut and still have “the world’s best military.”

  176. Bonnie says:

    @#1 mjd – I personally believe that Trent’s views on the debt ceiling are related to personal finance (and therefore relevant to this blog), since decisions made by congress affect our financial lives whether we want to believe it or not. Also, the entitlement programs make up 70%+ of our national budget and the elephant in the room that politicians never like to talk about. They make up a MUCH larger percentage of the budget than defense, despite us fighting 2 wars. Please do your research before shooting your mouth off.

    @Q5 Kelly – the first thing you and your bf should do when you decide to get married is to determine your budget (a # you’re both comfortable with and you can afford). Then, stick to your budget no matter what. Plan your wedding around your budget. Given that you’re from the South, I’d recommend having your wedding in the South as it’s likely much less expensive than having your wedding in the North or D.C. area. Plus, people expect the wedding to be for the bride in the bride’s hometown (if not where you currently live), so I don’t think it’ll be a big deal. If his family wants to throw the two of you a reception up North, then that’s up to them. DH and I had a gorgeous wedding 2 years ago for 175 guests at a beautiful resort in Honolulu (our hometown) for ~$18K. Sure, it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t $30K. For us, that was what we had in our budget and we stuck with it. If your budget is $5K or $10K, just plan the wedding around it and if you’re paying for everything, then your families really have no say in the planning.

  177. Tom says:

    I’m not really sure why people think employers would start giving everyone the amount of money they’re currently forced to contribute to social security in wages. That doesn’t strike me as super likely.

    It’s probably not likely that the structure of Social Security changes to what I describe in the first place, but I assume it’s still treated as a payroll tax (ie, employers required to withhold the same amount), but distributed as described.

    As far as some people won’t invest as well as others, c’est la vie. Aren’t there current recipients of SS as primary income who struggle to make ends meet today? Current setup or my proposal, there will be personal responsibility in having your finances in order to retire successfully with Social Security. This goes back to the point that the purpose of SS was supposed to be poverty insurance, instead primary retirement income.

  178. Johanna says:

    @Tom: So you would leave people to starve in the streets (which is, after all, what happens when there is poverty but no poverty insurance) just to prove a point about how much personal responsibility you have?

  179. kristine says:

    @Johanna- thank you for sating it well. There are some fairly average people who cannot even understand revolving debt. That is not a character flaw, but we humans have differing hard-drive capabilities in our heads, different areas of prowess. Should someone who cannot understand investing, or who is kind and trusting, and a sitting duck for unscrupulous bankers, end up homeless and ill-fed? That is social darwinism at its ugliest. Some people equate personal responsibility with every man for himself, and are willing to let the less well-equipped fall under a bus. It’s unseemly.

    @174- I try not to use as my best economic pie advisors sci-fi authors, no matter how brilliant. It is a sweeping and simplistic statement at that.

  180. Tom says:

    I’m sure there are currently some recipients of social security who are starving in the streets, or at least feel that way. So that’s my problem with that argument, Social Security doesn’t currently guarantee solvency for everyone.

    I wouldn’t be opposed to the government offering a guaranteed rate of return investment option that mimics the current return of social security.

    (BTW, anyone know what the rate of return Social Security is? I’m not bating, I’d really like to know. Obviously they have projections based on what I’m going to contribute and what I’ll receive… someone with more financial savvy than me should be able to figure it out!)

  181. Johanna says:

    @Tom: OK, first of all, you realize that there’s a difference (and kind of a significant one) between “feeling” like you’re starving in the streets, and actually, literally starving in the streets?

    A guaranteed rate of return option is all well and good, but it doesn’t solve the problem of people who don’t take that option, lose all their money, and are left with nothing.

    To answer your question about the rate of return, there actually is no answer, because the rate of return is not the same for everybody, because the benefits you receive are not directly proportional to what you pay in. Suppose that Alice and Bob are the same age, work the same years, and start collecting Social Security at the same time. Suppose that every year that they work, Alice earns exactly twice as much as Bob and pays twice as much in payroll tax. Then Alice’s Social Security check will be more than Bob’s, but less than twice as much. So Bob will have gotten a higher rate of return than Alice did.

  182. marta says:

    “For once, I’m going to break my stance against politics (…)”

    What else is new?

    The more you talk about politics, the more you convince me you haven’t got a clue. Don’t quit your day job.

  183. Jonathan says:

    Wow! Just wow! It deeply concerns me to know that there are people who seem to think that it is bad that our government attempts to provide some minimum level of food to the poor so they don’t starve to death or are forced to resort to stealing or eating out of dumpsters.

    I’m not sure that I will ever be able to grasp the concept of leaving in one of the most prosperous nations in the world where we spend billions of dollars on military expenditures and corporations make billions of dollars in profit, yet people are against guaranteeing that every citizen receive basics such as food and healthcare.

    This may be a can of worms that shouldn’t be opened, but I feel it needs to be said. For those who believe the poor do not deserve to be fed or housed because they need to “just get a job” or “work harder”, do you believe you are better than they are because you make more money? If not, can you explain why you are entitled to food, housing, and healthcare when they are not?

  184. Tracy W says:

    Maybe Kelly and her fiance could explore ways of having a big wedding, but on the cheap. Does a relative have a big house, or a house with a big garden somewhere with nice stable weather, that they can borrow for the wedding? If not, how about renting a local school hall, or maybe a relative has some other way of getting some indoor space cheaply? How about an afternoon wedding, with tea and cake served, rather than a sit-down meal? How about roping his family into running a barbeque, if they want a big wedding? Or maybe a potluck would work for the families involved? (and of course Kelly and her boyfriend can pay back the effort by providing free labour at other weddings and family events – I know I’m going to have to work like a dog at my brothers’ weddings). Or if you have a bit more money, there are companies that will run things like barbeques for big groups.
    Church groups don’t spend $10-$20k every time they want to have a big social event. It wouldn’t be a glamorous wedding, but it could be a very fun, warm, one.

  185. AnnJo says:

    Johanna re: British riots and Tracy re: permanent underclass. Here’s part of what British psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple had to say about the riots, which I think sums up very well the disastrous unintended consequences of generous social benefits:

    “The riots are the apotheosis of the welfare state and popular culture in their British form. A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice. It believes itself deprived (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class), even though each member of it . . . may well have lived his entire life at others’ expense, such that every mouthful of food he has ever eaten, every shirt he has ever worn, every television he has ever watched, has been provided by others. Even if he were to recognize this, he would not be grateful, for dependency does not promote gratitude. On the contrary, he would simply feel that the subventions were not sufficient to allow him to live as he would have liked.

    “At the same time, his expensive education will have equipped him for nothing. His labor, even supposing that he were inclined to work, would not be worth its cost to any employer—partly because of the social charges necessary to keep others such as he in a state of permanent idleness, and partly because of his own characteristics. And so unskilled labor is performed in England by foreigners, while an indigenous class of permanently unemployed is subsidized.”

    Most unpleasant, inconvenient jobs that are eliminated by minimum wages plus expensive benefits are not necessarily “permanent” jobs but “gateway” jobs. They are the jobs young people used to take to learn how to be productive members of the work force or that untrustworthy individuals (felons, druggies) could be hired for because trustworthiness was not required. After a time, the young people had a chance to become more productive, the untrustworthy had a chance to prove they could be relied on, and they could move on to better pay and better work conditions. It is true that some marginally functional individuals could end up in such jobs permanently because they could (just barely) perform them but lacked the capability to advance to anything better, but such people are going to be a “permanent underclass” no matter what, and even marginal jobs gave them access to a more socially integrated and probably happier life than permanently collecting a disability check and being at loose ends their entire adult lives.

  186. Johanna says:

    Re British riots: Um, so what? A lot of privileged people have said a lot of deplorable things (with varying levels of classism, racism, xenophobia, and cluelessness) about the riots. Quoting one of them proves precisely nothing.

    Re “gateway” jobs: You’re contradicting yourself. Before, you were saying that a strong social safety net would remove workers’ incentive to do unpleasant, “low-worth” jobs. I replied that that’s not necessarily a problem, just like it’s not a problem that the abolition of slavery diminished the former slaves’ incentive to work in the cotton fields for free. Now, you seem to be arguing that some people do have an incentive to do those jobs after all, as if that’s a refutation of something *I* said. It’s not.

  187. Flybabymom says:

    Trent, I’ve had the same thought about S/S. It’s not a sustainable program, and something will have to be done. Raising the age eligibility seems to be one very valid option. Allowing people to opt out for reasons other than conscience, so that they can invest their own money their own way (gasp–personal responsibility!!! How novel, if not downright un-American!) would be another option. (Someone mentioned that ministers can opt out–we can, but only if we are conscientiously opposed to social welfare. Many of us do not fit that category, but would love to invest on our own for retirement and not give to or depend on the government to do it for us.)

  188. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, I suspect a person’s degree of “privilege” is directly and perfectly correlated with the degree to which you dislike his/her opinions. Ad hominem, it invalidates the opinion.

  189. Johanna says:

    First of all, no. I mean, I’m pretty privileged myself, and I like almost all of my own opinions. If you’d said “unexamined privilege,” then maybe, but then the degree to which a privileged person is willing to examine his or her privilege is pretty well correlated with what his or her opinions are.

    Second, are you saying that Dr. Dalrymple’s claims are statements of opinion?

  190. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, the whole concept of “privilege” has developed as a way to shut down any observations or ideas that threaten the Left’s world view and to reinforce leftists’ sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority. Its (il)logic is that of a non-falsifiable null hypothesis. That dog’s hunting days are dwindling.

    What difference does it make whether we label Dr. Dalrymple’s statements ‘claims’ or ‘facts’ or ‘observations’ or ‘conclusions’ or ‘opinions’? You disagree with those statements, so obviously he has not examined his privilege, and since he has not examined his privilege, his statements about social issues must necessarily be wrong, not to mention clueless, racist, classist and/or xenophobic, and can be summarily dismissed without a moment’s thought.

  191. Johanna says:

    AnnJo, what makes you think you know more about what “leftists” think than I do? I’d be happy to have a discussion with you about what privilege means, but only if you’re interested in having that discussion in good faith.

    And yes, of course I disagree with Dalrymple’s characterization of the riots, and I find the paragraphs you quoted thoroughly unconvincing. I mean, what did you expect me to say? “Well, then, if somebody could write two whole paragraphs about how poor, black people are lazy and ungrateful, he must be right, so I’d better reconsider my own opinion right away”?

    Sarcasm aside, I really do not understand what I was supposed to get out of that quote.

  192. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, I know what leftists think because 1) I used to be one, 2) I have read and continue to read a great deal of what they write, and 3) as the old saw goes, some of my best friends are leftists and they tell me.

    Dalrymple has written at least two books about his years of experience as a prison psychiatrist in England dealing very directly with the underclass that populated that venue and their families, most of whom were white. You may not agree with his views, but he has a strong observational base from which to develop them.

    His quoted paragraphs were not either explicitly or implicitly about “poor, black people” but about the permanent underclass of various races that are created by a self-perpetuating dependency.

    Britain’s social welfare system is further advanced than our own, but your argument has been that our own should advance even further in that direction, and should strengthen the view that people really are “entitled” to their “entitlements,” namely, being taken care of cradle to grave by others without any regard for their own efforts and contributions. Yet you seem to believe that this will not incentivize both an actual dependency (and resulting incapacity) and a mindset of grievance and frustration.

    I don’t know what your background is, but having grown up among poor (and mostly non-white) people, and with parents who started their work lives as factory workers and day laborers, whose own parents had zero formal education and barely spoke English, I think I understand that poor people are first and foremost people, who respond to incentives the same as middle class and wealthy people. If you incentivize dependency, you will get more of it. If you convince those dependents that they are entitled to their daily bread without the need for any effort on their part, they will soon come to resent that it is not a daily steak. They will also feel no need to improve their skills, live within their means, plan for the future, take pride in that corny old “honest day’s work” or guide their children to do any of those things, and instead will become convinced that they are the victims of those who do such things and deserve better treatment and a full measure of ‘respect’.

    Honestly, this is so elementary a feature of human nature that it is hard to believe anyone who has lived in the real world doesn’t understand it.

  193. Riki says:

    Your big (and I believe incorrect) assumption is that it is “incentives” that keep the underclass poor and dependent. But reframe that for me . . . what if your “incentives” are really perpetual, systemic barriers to change?

    What would you have us do? Let people starve in the streets until they learn how to find a job? Where will they learn these skills you want them to magically develop then? And for that matter, what jobs will they find? Need I remind you of the unemployment rate?

    I am the first to admit there are big problems with the current welfare system. But I still find your attitude condescending and deplorable. If only we could all live in such lofty places as you.

  194. AnnJo says:

    Riki, condescension implies a belief that I am superior to those I’m talking about. To the contrary, I know darned well that if living at the relatively poor standard of living I had as a child/teenager had been guaranteed for me, I’m lazy enough that I would never have graduated from high school, much less worked my way through college and professional school, worked like a demon for the first 10 years of my career, foregone luxuries when I could have afforded them in favor of saving and investing, etc. Now, of course, I’m accustomed to a better standard of living, so I grudgingly continue to work as much as needed to maintain it and guarantee it for the future, but it could easilly have gone the other way.

    No, I don’t want people to starve in the streets. I also do not want anyone thinking that they are “entitled” to the fruits of other people’s efforts precisely because of what that belief will do to them – keep them in perpetual dependency.

    Johanna wants people to feel entitled to have their needs met by others. I think it would be better for people who have the capacity to do for themselves not to be encouraged to think it is unnecessary, while the people who lack that capacity are provided care.

    I think private charity is better suited to dispense that care than government, because judgments as to need and capacity to work are more likely to be made wisely by those who are motivated to actually reduce poverty, rather than those whose paychecks and careers depend on it being permanent.

    As for where people will learn skills – how about during their $120,000 – $150,000 K-12 educations?

    Why is it that poor black, Jewish, Polish, or Irish high schools of the early 20th century, segregated and poorly funded as they were, routinely turned out well-educated, literate students, and if young people dropped out it was to take jobs, while today, schools in poor neighborhoods whether white or black suffer huge drop-out rates and those who graduate are often not just uneducated but actively hostile to education, yet demand to be guaranteed a place in college (often to spend months in “remedial” programs)?

    You assume that people will starve because they can’t “learn how to find a job.” Who’s condescending? I assume that most people are not idiots and the one thing I’m pretty sure of is that the world will not soon run out of work to be done. People who are motivated to find work are far more likely to succeed than those who are not.

    Our current unemployment rate is indeed horrible, and there certainly are “systemic barriers” that are likely to make it worse rather than better, including looming government policies that will dramatically increase energy rates, regulatory and tax barriers that discourage companies from hiring here or repatriating profits made abroad, and others.

    Have you paid attention to the price of gold lately? It has increased by about 250% since Obama’s election. That people would rather “invest” in a completely non-productive metal than in businesses is a sign of how demoralized and pessimistic investors and business people are about the current business climate.

    But none of that is going to be helped by encouraging more people to feel “entitled.”

  195. Johanna says:

    I guess I have a more optimistic view of human nature than you do, AnnJo – I tend to think that when presented with the opportunity to build a better life for themselves through education and work, most people will take it, even if the alternative is not starving in the streets.

    I’m very puzzled by you comment on private charity. It seems to me that the paycheck and career of someone employed by a private charity depend just as much on the continued existence of poverty as do the paycheck and career of someone working for the government. And of course, if the problem is that a social safety net administered by the government does not do enough to reduce poverty over the long term, there’s absolutely nothing stopping private charities from doing more.

    And of course, a strong social safety net by itself is not going to solve every problem we face in our society and our economy. I never claimed it would, and I don’t think anyone else here did either. So I also don’t understand what your point is there.

  196. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, although somewhat attenuated in the last three years, “the opportunity to build a better life through education and work” is and has been available, and yet there are millions who do not avail themselves of either. Granted it is harder if, like my grandparents, you are an illiterate just off the boat who can’t even speak English, or like many blacks in some times and places, laws and customs actually withhold those opportunities from you, but over the last 30 years we have routinely imported millions of people who availed themselves of the opportunities, while millions of native-born Americans have rejected what opportunities exist in favor of dependency.

    I recall the many weeks I spent at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston during a relative’s final illness. My relative’s doctors, nurses, technologists and aides included first or at most second-generation immigrants from France, Croatia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Morocco, and a number of other countries I don’t remember. In fact, there was only one nurse I recall who was NOT an immigrant (and was also the most uncaring and incompetent of them all). I talked with all of these people. Uniformly they saw this country as overflowing with opportunity and were busily trying to get more of their relatives over here.

    But you may be right that our views depend to some degree on pessimism or optimism. You see yourself as optimistic – that even if a decent living standard is guaranteed, people will still rouse themselves to do work, even if it is sometimes boring, not generously paid, or otherwise unpleasant. On that, I am a pessimist. I would not have done so, and I know too many people who do not do so today.

    On the other hand, I am optimistic that most people weaned from the public teat will rise to the occasion and make something of themselves, an outcome you are pessimistic about.

    If the progress in this country of formerly disadvantaged groups such as the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, and a substantial portion of the Mexicans weren’t enough, the welfare reforms of the 1990s were a good test case for which viewpoint is closer to realistic. My understanding is that we experienced no increase in starvation-related morbitity and mortality, while millions of long-term welfare recipients were somehow able to find work and support themselves and their children. Those people proved to be more resilient and capable than many pessimists predicted.

    Keep in mind that your position has been that not only should there be a strong and wide social safety net, but that no one should feel in the slightest bit ashamed of taking full advantage of it because it is their “right.” I happen to believe that in a country with the wealth and charitable traditions of ours, a reasonable safety net for the truly needy is not a major challenge, but even if such a net were managed by the government, my greater disagreement with you is on the view that its recipients should regard their benefits as an entitlement. That mindset, I think, is the most serious threat to reducing poverty.

  197. Riki says:

    I had a long reply that is now stuck in moderation randomly. Frustrating.

    AnnJo . . . I actually don’t disagree with the heart of your argument. I want to reduce poverty and have people supporting themselves too. But I do think we have to acknowledge the challenges that keep that from happening.

    If Trent ever allows my comment through, you can read all about my opinion in detail.

  198. Johanna says:

    AnnJo, it’s not necessary to tell me to “keep in mind” what my position has been (and still is). In general, it’s very safe to assume that I remember my own positions.

    I’m still trying to figure out what your position is, though. Your evidence that people are fundamentally lazy is that immigrants are not lazy? Huh?

    When you say you believe in a safety net for the “truly needy,” how do you determine who is truly needy, and how would you require them to demonstrate their need? Are you just thinking about the people you were talking about earlier, who, due to chronic illness or disability, will never be able to care for themselves, even in the best of circumstances? What about the people (and there are plenty of them right now) who are willing and able to work, but who can’t find a job? What about a woman (with or without kids) who makes the choice to get out of an abusive relationship, but who lacks the job skills to support herself? Who is worthy of help under your preferred system, and what kind of hoops would you have them jump through to get it?

    And where have you found data on hunger-related morbidity and mortality in the US? I would be very interested in seeing that. (I assume that your “understanding” on that point is based on some kind of data, not just the assumption that because you don’t see people starving in the streets, nobody is starving anywhere.)

    The closest I can find are the USDA studies on food insecurity in America. In 2009, almost 6% of households (including 9% of black and Hispanic households, and 13% of single women with children) experienced “very low food security.” That basically means that they didn’t get enough to eat, even with food stamps, WIC, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other private charities. Another 9% had “low food security,” meaning that they couldn’t afford balanced meals.

    It’s not clear how food insecurity changed in the wake of the welfare reform act of 1996, since the USDA only started collecting data in 1995. But the percentages did noticeably shoot up in 2008, and I doubt that it was because millions of people suddenly got lazier.

  199. AnnJo says:

    Riki, my experience is that once you’re stuck in moderation, you stay there. I’ve never figured out what gets you into that purgatory, either.

    As for the challenges – well, there’s no question it is harder for some people than for others to pull themselves out of poverty. Even if material resources were equally distributed, which they obviously are not, other resources such as health, intelligence, energy, ambition, beauty, wisdom, and just plain luck are not.

    We can acknowledge the challenges and I do, but which advice to a poor person, if followed, is more likely to actually improve that person’s life:

    1) Life is unfair and you should vote for politicians who promise to make it less so, but until those promises are kept, there’s no real point in trying to save yourself, because you’re a victim and have a right to be taken care of.

    2) Life is unfair, suck it up and try harder.

  200. Johanna says:

    How about 3) Life is unfair, and although some people in your situation manage to make their lives better by sucking it up and trying harder, their success hinges crucially on help from various sources, being in the right place at the right time, and other forms of luck. So if that’s not working out for you, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. And regardless of what happens, you and your children deserve to nourish yourselves adequately.

    Also, “vote for politicians who will make things better for you” is another form of unhelpful victim blaming, because (1) neither of the two major parties has proven to be especially interested these days in making life less unfair for poor people, and (2) a lot of state legislatures are doing everything they can to make it as difficult as possible for poor people to even vote.

  201. AnnJo says:


    Kwashiorkor and marasmus (nutritional deficiency diseases of children) are practically unheard of in the U.S., and where they rarely surface, are usually found to be due to nutritional ignorance, fad diets or social chaos (I guess that’s the current politically correct term for child abuse and neglect) in the home, rather than lack of financial resources.

    According to the USDA, “In 2003, only one-half of 1 percent of households with children were so severely food insecure that any of the children was ever hungry during the year. A substantially larger proportion (3.8 percent) had adult members who were hungry at times during the year because of their households’ food insecurity.”

    As far as I know, nobody even tries to figure out whether the reason any of these households goes hungry for even a day is poor budgeting of available resources rather than actual inadequacy of resources.

    I know one family where the single parent’s annual income exceeds $125,000, but because of poor budgeting and chronic overspending, there are definitely a few days during each year when the kitchen is practically devoid of food and the children use their expensive cell phones to get invited to dinner at their friends’ homes, while the parent (who is morbidly obese) may go hungry. That household is one of the “food insecure” but clearly the remedy is not to throw food stamps at them. I’m not sure there IS a remedy to that family’s problem, which is a voluntarily chosen dysfunctional lifestyle.

    The definition of food insecurity is so broad that if I lost my wallet during an out-of-town trip and had to skip a couple of meals before I could have funds wired to me, or even just “feared” that I might miss a couple of meals, I would be a case of food insecurity.

    There are probably several tens of thousands of undernourished homeless mentally ill, and I don’t know what can really be done for them, there are undoubtedly elderly people who fail to feed themselves adequately regardless of their financial means, who from a physical health standpoint should probably be living in an institutional setting but don’t want to, and there are surely some families in disrupted living circumstances who go a day or two without adequate food. I wish it were otherwise.

    But it seems pretty clear that the reason the terminology has been changed from “hunger” to “food insecurity” is that hunger in any meaningful sense has a real and measurable outcome while the term “food insecurity” evades that burden.

  202. Riki says:

    You misunderstand me . . . probably because my incredibly eloquent and convincing argument was lost to moderation.

    I’m a teacher who works with struggling students every day. I try to teach them all the things we want them to have — self-respect, determination, worth ethic, and the value of effort. Most of them don’t have good role models at home and unfortunately, most of them probably eventually become a statistic. I see the low literacy-poverty cycle at work every day.

    I DO NOT want people to throw their hands up in despair, give up, and then wait to be supported. And I do not want them to feel victimized. But option #2 “Life is unfair, suck it up, and try harder” complete disregards their narratives and is pretty useless. Suck it up and try harder doesn’t work for the people who are already doing everything they can.

  203. Johanna says:

    You are correct (as far as I know) that the USDA does not break the food insecurity numbers down by “people who are too stupid to budget” and “people who are not.” But they do break them down by income: In 2009, 14.4% of households below 185% of the poverty line experienced very low food security, compared to 2.7% of households above. That strongly suggests that the primary problem is not wealthy people losing their wallets, or dysfunctional households like the one you describe. The problem is people not being able to afford enough food.

    (By the way, in the household you describe, what does the parent’s weight have to do with anything? Are you saying that obese people don’t need to eat? Because they do.)

    You seem to be preoccupied with the possibility that some people might receive help who don’t deserve it, and seem to be suggesting that it is better to help nobody at all than to risk having that happen. Which brings me back to my earlier question: How would you define who “really needs” help (either from the government or from a private charity), and how would you have them demonstrate their need? I would really like to know.

  204. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, you say, “How about 3) Life is unfair, and although some people in your situation manage to make their lives better by sucking it up and trying harder, their success hinges crucially on help from various sources, being in the right place at the right time, and other forms of luck.”

    Agreed. I’d say 80-90% of good “luck,” especially for women and racial or religious minorities, is having been born or naturalized into this country during the last 50 years, as opposed to about 75% of the rest of the world or in some earlier era of the world’s history. And at least 50% of bad “luck” might be having been born into a family and/or cultural environment that encourages a sense of victimization and entitlement and discourages effort and work.

    You say, “So if that’s not working out for you, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.” Actually, it doesn’t NECESSARILY mean that, but it very well might mean that, and we are usually the least able to impartially form those kinds of judgments about ourselves.

    You want people who do not earn their own livings to feel just as good about themselves, as worthy, as meritorious, as those who do. Yet you deny that this artificial equality of merit will have any motivational effect on either group. I disagree. Too much unearned self-satisfaction is a hindrance to improving one’s life, although too much self-disgust can be a hindrance, too. On the scale between the two, you and I obviously find the proper balance in different places.

  205. Johanna says:

    “You want people who do not earn their own livings to feel just as good about themselves, as worthy, as meritorious, as those who do.”

    No I don’t, and I never said I did. First of all, I’m not the thought police, nor do I wish to be. Second, there are so many things in life at which one can succeed or fail, or feel worthy or unworthy, that it’s entirely a non sequitur to go from “Johanna favors policies that would lessen the stigma associated with food stamps” to “Johanna wants everyone to feel exactly the same about everything.”

    More importantly, though, I think we may have happened upon a fundamental split in human nature just as big as the askers/guessers divide that people were talking about some time ago. This is something that Trent and I have clashed over, too (to the extent that two people can clash over anything when one of them writes a bunch of comments that the other doesn’t read).

    Trent often writes about how dwelling on his failures motivates him to do better in the future. By keeping his most painful moments fresh in his mind, he says, he feels an incentive to work to avoid feeling any more of that pain.

    That way of thinking is totally foreign to me, because I’m exactly the opposite. When I feel like I’ve failed at something, it doesn’t make me want to work to do better – it makes me want to give up and ignore that part of my life as much as I can. But when I’ve tasted success at something, it makes me want more of that success, and that *does* motivate me to work hard at it.

    It sounds like you might be like Trent in this respect, rather than like me, and that’s why we keep talking past each other. You’re assuming everyone is like you, and I’m assuming everyone is like me, and we’re both wrong. There is no single “proper balance” between self-satisfaction and self-disgust that’s best for everyone.

    I’m not sure how (or even whether) awareness of this divide should affect policy decisions. I’ll have to think more about this.

  206. AnnJo says:

    Johanna, you may have hit the nail on the head. Much as I enjoy my suceesses, I hate my failures more; fear of failing at something or the recollection of having failed at something are huge motivators for me both to tackle it again (unless I am forced to conclude it is simply beyond my capabilities) and to try harder. While I don’t assume EVERYBODY operates the same as I do and I know others who describe their motivators the same way you do, I do assume a substantial number of others are motivated as I am.

    To the extent policy decisions operate as incentives and disincentives, I fear it invites massive unintended consequences to ignore the various ways people may be influenced by them.

  207. Jonathan says:

    AnnJo, I’m curious to hear some clarification on these two, seemingly, contradictory statements.

    “…condescension implies a belief that I am superior to those I’m talking about. To the contrary….”

    “You want people who do not earn their own livings to feel just as good about themselves, as worthy, as meritorious, as those who do. Yet you deny that this artificial equality of merit will have any motivational effect on either group. I disagree.”

    It sounds to me as though you are saying that people who do not earn their own livings should NOT feel as good about themselves, as worthy, or as meritorious as those, such as you, who do. Is this not a belief that you are superior to those people? Or are you saying that those people should not feel as good about themselves as you feel about yourself, yet you feel they are just as good as you are?

  208. Jonathan says:

    Johanna, forgive me for getting off-topic, but I really wanted to respond to one of your comments.

    “Trent often writes about how dwelling on his failures motivates him to do better in the future. By keeping his most painful moments fresh in his mind, he says, he feels an incentive to work to avoid feeling any more of that pain.

    That way of thinking is totally foreign to me, because I’m exactly the opposite. When I feel like I’ve failed at something, it doesn’t make me want to work to do better – it makes me want to give up and ignore that part of my life as much as I can. But when I’ve tasted success at something, it makes me want more of that success, and that *does* motivate me to work hard at it.”

    This is a favorite topic of mine, because I feel that complete personal responsibility is so important. I believe that one of the keys to the way I (and I assume Trent) views failures is that I do not “blame” myself for the failure. I take responsibility for the failure, and move forward. I realize to many this seems like nothing more than semantics, but I believe it is an important distinction. Blame is a very negative emotion, and blaming yourself for a failure frames that failure in a negative way, so it makes sense that one would not feel motivated by such thoughts. Taking responsibility, however, allows you to view the failure in a positive manner, which makes it much easier to then turn that experience into motivation. It is all about harnessing positive thinking and accepting responsibility for one’s own situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *