Op-Ed

Generations of family success aided by our government

Sid Webb is a Lexington artist.
Sid Webb is a Lexington artist.

One of the best descriptions I've heard is, "Government is what we do to help each other."

That covers it all. Military, public safety, decent roads, education, freedom to speak, freedom of religion.

I am 74 and have been reflecting on how government has helped me.

When I was growing up, my dad wrote short stories for magazines and worked as a Greyhound ticket agent, and my mom always found work clerking in a neighborhood grocery. I never thought of us as poor.

When dad was transferred from Owensboro to Lexington, we lived in an apartment over a grocery, then a duplex until my parents found a house. They assumed a low-interest rate mortgage which the owner, a veteran, had gotten as a benefit of the GI Bill. We couldn't have afforded the payments otherwise.

A year later my dad died of a heart attack. He was 52. My mom was 42. Dad's life insurance left Mom $10,000. She hung onto it for a rainy day. .

Because I was younger than 18, Social Security paid Mom $500 a month, which, with her minimum wage, covered house payments and food, and clothed me.

I worked for extra cash, but it was more important to Mom that I go to school. She didn't think of the Social Security payments as a handout. Both she and my dad had paid into Social Security.

I joined the Air Force after high school and spent two years in Okinawa. Our country was at peace, a rarity in my lifetime. When I returned four years later I was ready for college. But because I had served in peacetime, the GI Bill tuition benefits were not available to me.

The good news was the General Assembly was funding Kentucky's universities well enough that tuition was affordable. By living at home and working part-time I could buy books and pay tuition without taking out loans.

I got married the spring before my senior year. My wife had graduated that same spring and found a teaching job. We had enough income to rent an apartment, and buy some used furniture and a used car that failed to get me to classes from time to time.

By the time I graduated from the University of Kentucky, Congress had reinstated the GI Bill for veterans of war and peace — just in time for me to go to art school in Atlanta.

Between my wife's salary and the GI Bill, we were able to rent an apartment, pay for tuition and supplies and make it to month's end before the food money ran out.

When we returned to Kentucky in 1969, KET went on the air and I became its first art director. I played a number of roles and became a deputy executive director.

I'm proudest of being the executive producer of the first two KET/GED series and promoting them nationwide. I calculated that nearly a million people had earned GEDs because of the help those TV series gave them during my time at KET.

None of this would have happened for me if I had not gone to college and art school.

My mother never remarried. She continued working as a cashier and finally paid off the house. She grew a large garden and canned her own vegetables. When she was about 65, she contracted Parkinson's disease, which finally prevented her from working. My wife and I were ill-equipped to help her. We lived in a small house with steps leading to the entrances. Bedrooms and bath were upstairs. Mom couldn't walk.

Mom went to a nursing home. The rainy day had come. The life insurance money she hadn't touched in more than 20 years let her pay for care for a year or so. She was proud of that.

When her money ran out, Medicaid paid for the next 11 years. Medicaid let her keep the little house she had worked so long to have. While Mom was still able to be moved in a wheelchair, we took her on regular visits to her house. Studies show that people in nursing homes who lose everything also lose hope and die sooner.

Low tuition, Social Security, the GI Bill and Medicaid made it possible for me to rise to the middle class, work at a fulfilling job, marry a wonderful woman and raise a beautiful daughter, whom we were able to help through college and law school.

We all three paid taxes and didn't complain about it. We were glad to help others have the opportunities we'd received.

I can only imagine how poor our country would be if millions of others hadn't received the helping hand of government as I did.

That help comes at a price.

After World War II, the government was deeply in debt. The public debt was 120 percent of the gross domestic product but was paid down to 28 percent by the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. The debt started to increase dramatically again when Reagan cut taxes.

The people who benefited from government were no longer encouraged to support it. Only in the last couple of years has the debt-to-GDP ratio begun to dip again.

But spending cuts due to the lack of revenue have hurt all of us and will likely affect our economy and the well-being of the next generation and who knows how many generations to come.

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