In my March 7 column I wrote about the inequity of paying our soldiers and other people who take care of us so little while asking so much in return ("Defining heroism," p. 29). I received a most heartfelt and interesting reply from Uwe Reinhardt, a Princeton University professor and healthcare commentator. I liked it so much I have decided to use this week's letter to publish his comments in full.
- Charles S. Lauer
Chuck, you celebrate "the noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay but stand on guard in Afghanistan and Iraq." This shouldn't happen in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, with the lowest total tax rate among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
And yet it is true. "It's because Congress has failed to set a safety net for military families that lose heads of households," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wrote recently in the New York Times. He was referring to the families of reservists and members of the National Guard whose incomes can plummet drastically when members give up better-paying civilian jobs for the much lower pay of soldiers. The families of regular troops already know the lifestyle such meager pay affords.
A recent nationwide survey sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, revealed that the financial stress of extended deployment can be severe for military families. Three in 10 report that in the past year they have had trouble paying bills. More than one in five winds up receiving food stamps or other social welfare assistance. That fiscal hardship can become particularly acute when the Pentagon extends these soldiers' service a year or more beyond their original contract with the government -- in effect imposing the draft on the very people who have already sacrificed so much for the nation.
A New Jersey newspaper last year reported on a pancake sale that netted $12,000 for hard-pressed military families, with some of the money destined for food pantries.
The state of Illinois has added military families to the targets of charity to whom taxpayers can donate their state tax refunds. For the tax year 2004, slightly more than $400,000 was collected in this way for military families. Any family with a National Guard member or reservist deployed abroad is eligible for a subsidy of $500 (for the year) and an additional $2,000 if the family's income has dropped by at least 30%.
One should not look a gift horse in the mouth. Still, it can be asked whether $2,500 per year is enough relief for a low-income military family that may have lost $10,000 or more of its accustomed income merely because its chief earner has been called to fight for the nation. Put in perspective, the $400,000 raised in Illinois is only about 3 cents per capita in a state with a population of 12.5 million, or the equivalent of about 100,000 cups of Starbucks' coffee, more of which probably are bought in Chicago in one day. A similar program in Rhode Island netted only $11,900 for tax year 2004 -- about 1 cent per capita. All the while American taxpayers have luxuriated in one tax cut after another.
Why, of all people, do I trouble the leaders of healthcare with these observations? I do so because speaking or writing about this issue elsewhere is like howling into the wind. Unlike the rest of this nation's business, financial and political elite, whose behavior has come to resemble more and more the lifestyle of Louis XIV's court of Versailles, the nation's healthcare leaders remain firmly rooted in their communities. They understand the meaning of social solidarity because they practice it daily, as the nation's low-income, uninsured fellow citizens show up in their facilities seeking care. Thus I believe my plea for military families may resonate with healthcare leaders.
After World War II, this country stood as the unquestioned moral beacon to the rest of the world. If readers think it still does, let them travel abroad, read and listen. At some point, the children and grandchildren of Tom Brokaw's celebrated The Greatest Generation must have a national conversation about what they have done to this nation's ethos. A good place to start this conversation would be an unsparing inquiry into our attitude towards this nation's military families. Bedecking our cars with ribbons proclaiming "Support our troops" is not enough, particularly since these ribbons don't do anything to fund the troops themselves.
We should instead explore more fundamental questions, such as:
* Even if enough hard-pressed fellow citizens or immigrants were willing to accept low pay to fight and die for us, is it morally acceptable to send our soldiers to fight lethal insurgents in Iraq even as these brave men and women are worrying over whether their loved ones at home can pay the mortgage and put food on the table?
* Should American military families ever have to rely on welfare?
* Is it acceptable that the families of American fighting men and women are driven to beg for food at local food pantries?
* Could this wealthy nation not make the civilian employers of reservists and National Guard members keep their regular wages and have government fully reimburse these employers, as is done in other countries?
In short, should we view military service as just another commercial product, traded in the free market, and sometimes for a pittance, or should military service mean something more than that?
James Madison professor of political economy
Princeton (N.J.) University