ELKHORN, WIS. — The event had been advertised as a listening session about the federal budget, but nobody could hear much of anything now. Some people booed, others clapped, and a man in extra-large overalls shouted across the crowd, “Why doesn’t anybody in Washington tell us the truth?”
Latecomers jammed near the entryway while policemen fidgeted in the aisles. Congressman Paul Ryan, the featured speaker, paced at the front of the room, pleading for order. “Come on, guys,” he said. “Come on, now.”
Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, had returned to his district in southern Wisconsin to detail his 2012 budget proposal at a series of small community meetings, none of which turned out to be small. Here, at a library in a 7,300-person town where constituents call the congressman by first name only, people referred to his budget by either Ryan’s term, the “Path to Prosperity,” or their own, the “Road to Ruin.” Ryan’s short speech only amplified the divide.
“We are heading for disaster in America,” Ryan said, igniting another round of cheers and boos.
And then: “This is our generation’s defining moment. This is our fork in the road.”
Seated in the sixth row of folding chairs, lost amid the commotion, a 64-year-old man in wire-rimmed glasses leaned forward and quietly raised his hand. Clarence Cammers had come to ask a question, one that had been weighing on his mind for the past two weeks.
A lifelong Republican, Cammers had studied all 73 pages of Ryan’s proposal, which aims to erase the $14 trillion national debt in part by minimizing popular entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He had punched Ryan’s numbers into a worn gray calculator, trying to decipher how those gigantic sums would affect his family’s income of hourly wages and the very entitlements Ryan had targeted. He had parted his hair, tucked a collared shirt into his jeans and driven to the listening session. On the way, he had rehearsed the question in his head.
And then he waited. He held his hand in the air like so many others in Ryan’s district, a stretch of rural flatland that spans from Racine, with the state’s highest unemployment, to Janesville, still devastated from the closing of a General Motors plant last year. It is a conservative area that has voted for Ryan seven times in part because people here believe in fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget. But a high percentage of them are also older and working-class, unsure if they can withstand the cuts their congressman has proposed.
Cammers waited with his question while Ryan quieted the library crowd, gave a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation titled “A Choice of Two Futures,” called on six other constituents with their hands in the air and then, finally, pointed his index finger to the middle of the sixth row:
“Yes, you. The gentleman there in the middle.”
Cammers stood up, stammered and introduced himself as a disabled veteran. He said the whole budget predicament seemed like an impossible choice between a mounting national debt and devastating cutbacks. He explained that he was living on Social Security, and that he had made a pretty decent living once while working in management, and that he could survive a few cuts.
“I will be fine,” he said. And then he came around to the question.
“I guess what I’m saying is, what are all these changes going to mean for my son?”
The next morning, in a single-story farmhouse on the edge of town, the son awoke a little before 10, threw on sweat pants, grabbed a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats and sank into a recliner across the living room from his father.
Tim Cammers, 32, has always lived in the bedroom down the hall from his parents, the one with two “Lord of the Rings” posters still hanging on the wall. He makes $10 an hour working in food prep at a nearby resort, but the bosses cut his hours whenever business is slow. Lately, he has been collecting part of his income through unemployment and spending a lot of time in the recliner, watching news about the federal budget and wondering how politicians expect him to retire on “a bunch of worthless vouchers.”
“How’d the thing go yesterday?” he asked.
“It was a mess,” his father said. “I feel bad about the country you’re getting.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“Either the debt keeps going up and you have to pay more taxes, or we cut back and you don’t get the retirement you deserve.”
“I lose either way,” Tim said.
“You lose either way,” Clarence said, nodding.
His question to Ryan at the listening session had resulted in a broad response about “hard cuts across the board,” and Clarence had begun to wonder if any answer would have satisfied him.
What would happen to his son? He had always worried about Tim — about his seizures in preschool, his severe attention-deficit disorder, his preoccupation with video games, his lack of a serious relationship. His money. Tim lived day to day, spending whatever he earned on mocha Frappuccinos and video games, with little left over to save despite never paying rent.
Ryan had spoken at the library about eradicating a “culture of dependency,” which had made Clarence think about Tim, the son who had never “flown from the nest,” he said. So far in his life — sometimes because of circumstances beyond his control — Tim had often been dependent.
Clarence had always depended only on himself. His own father lost a pension at Buick and then lived out his days on welfare, so Clarence started socking away savings as soon as he got out of the service and took his first job at Ace Hardware. He delayed marrying for two years so he and his bride could pay for their own wedding. Then they bought a house and made double payments to clear the loan in half the necessary time. Clarence had worked in electronics and human services for almost 40 years, applying for disability only when an old knee injury made it too painful for him to stay on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time. He hated feeling trapped in the house and relying on Social Security, so he began taking medication for depression and listening to relaxation tapes.
His wife, Gail, 61, still works at a small manufacturing company, mostly because her job provides the family with health benefits. Each morning after she leaves the house, Clarence exercises for 15 minutes in the basement, tucks in his shirt and then goes about his day, structured so it still feels purposeful. Mondays he meets with men from the American Legion. Wednesdays he does laundry. Fridays he cooks fish.
On the third Wednesday of each month, he receives an automatic deposit into his bank account from Social Security and spends an hour managing his finances. This was that day. He stood up from the recliner.
“Time to call over to the bank,” he said.
He dialed the number from memory and learned that his payment had in fact been deposited, $1,912 that would carry them through another month. He walked downstairs to his desk in the basement, inserted a floppy disk into his computer and opened a document called “Check Book Spreadsheet.” To his left sat a locked file cabinet containing 40 years of financial documents; to his right sat a paper shredder for documents he no longer needed. “If you’re not careful about every aspect of your money, you lose track and start falling behind,” he said.
The country’s mounting debt had bothered him for years — his desire for small government is one reason he usually votes Republican — and some of Ryan’s comments at the library had stuck in his head. That “the next generation is getting an outright crash economy.” That the total debt would exceed the country’s worth in the next few decades. That foreign countries, and mostly China, own 47 percent of the debt. That the Federal Reserve started paying it down by printing extra money, weakening the value of U.S. currency.
Already the dollar feels lackluster to Clarence. His Social Security payments have not included a cost-of-living increase in the past two years, even as life has become more expensive. Elkhorn electric bills are up 30 percent over last year. The assessed value of his home has dropped 14 percent. Gas is $4 a gallon, groceries cost $110 each week instead of $80, and the town is charging an extra $2.50 a week to haul away his trash. So Clarence clips coupons, cuts back on dinners at Chili’s, drives less and spends more time at the desk in his basement, managing the budget.
He entered the $1,912 payment into the spreadsheet and then divided the money into more than a dozen spending categories: $30 for “telephone,” $20 for “auto-maintenance,” $52 for “gas,” $17.51 for “cable,” $0.34 for “checking interest earned.”
He had been balancing a budget every month for 40 years, and his fingers navigated the numbers on the keyboard from memory. It was simple accounting, really — a calculator, a Microsoft spreadsheet and an old floppy disk. Nothing to it. Money came in, and he never spent any more than he had. Input. Output. An end balance in the black.
It drove him crazy that the federal government had made such a mess out of the same process, allocating funds it never had for programs people rely on and borrowing to make ends meet until the whole spreadsheet became a document not of fact but of theory. Sometimes he wondered: Who was in charge of their math? How did they ever let it get to $14 trillion, turning a man who could balance his own budget into someone with his hand in the air and a question for a congressman about his son?
Now the son came downstairs carrying a double mocha, sat at his own desk and started watching videos on the Internet. He clicked on one about senior citizens learning to fight using their wooden canes.
“Dad, check this out,” he said. “They’re doing cane-fu!”
“I’m busy,” Clarence said.
“With budgeting. Maybe you should be doing some of this.”
Tim groaned and put on headphones to listen to Creed. Clarence turned back to the spreadsheet.
When the budget debate is all said and done, he wondered, what will be left for Tim? What is more important, he wondered, a balanced budget or a safety net for his son? Does it have to be one or the other?
Ryan has proposed cutting taxes across the board — even for the top 1 percent — and shrinking programs intended for those who need help. Unemployment assistance would be more stringent. Food stamps would be cut by 20 percent. Medicare would be based on a voucher system that would struggle to keep pace with inflation.
Clarence finished typing numbers into the categories on his spreadsheet and grabbed his calculator. A Social Security payment of $1,912 minus monthly expenditures of $1,324 meant he had $588 left over to save. That would be money for Tim. He would be Tim’s safety net.
“My retirement is going to be his retirement,” Clarence said, because at least that way, no matter what happened with the budget, his son might have something to depend on.