Before Social Security and before SSI people had to pay for their own family member's retirement, they had to take care of their own mentally ill family members, they had to house their own disabled children and adults or those people became homeless, were institutionalized, and died. People who rented and lived paycheck to paycheck struggled to handle these problem family members. People with homes struggled to hang onto their homes, pay the mortgage, and generally had to sell up to provide some kind of income stream to their disabled adult children. This is an invisible fact of life in a modern society in which the elderly aren't picked off by epidemics and disabled children aren't killed off by poor medical treatment at birth or the neglect of institutions for the "feeble minded" or orphanages used as dumping grounds by families overwhelmed by the responsibility for non productive members.
We've really forgotten about this, as a society, just as we've forgotten that Social Security is what pulled 60 percent of the elderly out of poverty and dependency in the first place. I object to the very phrase "entitlement" when it is applied to SS or Medicare since, of course, people pay for them in advance and wishing to receive back what one has paid for isn't an "entitlement" in any sense but rather a natural expectation that one owns what one has purchased--whether that is an object on the open market or peace of mind through buying into a defined benefit insurance plan (which both SS and Medicare are).
However, there is something which needs to be said about the mass amnesia and the willfull blindness of the American people as to how and why the milk got into the coconut. A huge swathe of the American people think that society is, in fact, split between makers and takers, between producers and moochers--but they all think that the line is set just one notch below themselves. Steve M. has a nice post below this one about how shocked the various right wing commenters are that someone (else) can get foodstamps, or government assistance, while still having a pot to piss in--an apartment, a refrigerator, a cel phone, or a car. What underlies that outrage is not mere miserliness of spirit but an assumption that government assistance should only be offered to people who are, basically, already entirely immiserated. Anything else is subsidizing someone who doesn't need it. In the case of the woman who "left" her children's "real father" the person who is getting the subsidy is, of course the biological father of the children--not the mother. (I'd like to point out that under law the biological father's financial responsibility for his own children does not end at the point that he stops getting free sex from the biological mother. That's a straight up men's rights argument. Marriage or divorce shoudl not have made the children dependent on the kindness of the mother's new partner). In the case of the apocryphal man with the six cylinder car the person getting the subsidy is the car owner not the family he is feeding.
This isn't, exactly, wrong--when the government/taxpayers step in to pay for health care or elder care the families of those people who are getting subsidized are actually getting a benefit. its not just the person who gets the benefit directly who is being subsidized--its the entire social circle (the family, the neighborhood, the city) who is being given a break because it is these people who would otherwise have to pay to make sure the children are fed, the elderly are housed, the sick are cared for.
I have a lovely friend--she's voted Democratic in every election since FDR. She's 95. She lives in the house her family built on the same street where she was born. She and her husband inherited the house, probably even free and clear of a mortgage, from her older brother who died without children. They both had various jobs and paid taxes for probably fifty years but she probably hasn't paid any federal income taxes for at least 25 years. Her husband had a stroke and was paralyzed for six years and she nursed him, largely at home. She has been on Medicare for a very long time. Recently she had a stroke, was in the hospital for 3 days without speech and movement and then in a Rehab hospital for about ten days. The entire street turned out to be present with her in both places--driving the nursing staff crazy--because she has only one child, a woman in her 70's, who is selfish and incompetent.
My friend was brought home to her own home, to her second floor apartment, and installed back there where she is (essentially) a prisoner with full time in home care. I'm not sure who is paying for the round the clock care. I'm pretty sure it isn't Medicare or Medicaid. What really makes sense for her would be to sell the house, which is easily worth a million dollars in this market, and move to an assisted living facility. The income from the house would pay for the next ten years of assisted living easily. But she wants to hang onto the house to leave as an asset to her daughter. My friend and her daughter are very angry that "the law" would claw back the house from the daughter if they tried to strip the mother of her assets in order to put her in a home on Medicaid. They are angry that the public nursing homes aren't all that nice. My friend actually volunteered for 40 years at a then public local home which had a couple of "scholarships" for a few indigent elderly and she resents the fact that she wouldn't qualify for one of those scholarships--because she's not indigent.
They are under the impression that the "safety net" for the elderly should be extended upwards so that the elderly can leave their assets to their children--transferring wealth down within the family while transferring the cost of elder care and health care to the taxpayer. (This strategy, by the way, is necessitated by the fact that the daughter never married and never had children and was a teacher in an age of declining pay and retirement benefits so she never formed her own stable middle class household and does not have children to support her in her old age.)
What strikes me most in talking to both of them is the illusion they have that they already paid for an incredibly high level of care "with their taxes" over the years as though their tax money didn't go for a lot of other shit they weren't thinking about like wars or roads. They also don't seem to grasp that there's not some office of government benefits out there that is aimed at keeping the middle class middle class but a hard fought system of begrudged aid for the poorest and most problematic of society. They've sat through years of public debate about "the poverty level" or "benefits offered to people at 150 percent of poverty level" and it never occurred to them that those regulations would apply to them and that they might be rated on that ungenerous scale when they needed help themselves.
It used to be said that a conservative was a liberal who got mugged and I used to assume that when a right wing guy lost his job and had to depend on food stamps and/or unemployment you would see a similar conversion from right to left. Now I'm not so sure. Looking at these discussions I've had with my friend and her daughter I think people are very well defended against grasping just how fragile their physical health and their social position really are. The first and last reaction seems to be anger that society and government aren't structured to protect "the good people"--not to look around and realize that we have all been buggered by Reagonomics and the rich for a very, very, long time.