Hey Mitt, When Are You Going to Apologize to My Parents?

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Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Mitt Romney listens to Barack Obama during the first presidential debate on October 3. Credit: Flickr/University of Denver.

As the focus of the presidential campaign shifts to the debates, I am still awaiting the apology that Republican nominee Mitt Romney owes my deceased parents.

Romney’s description of the 47 percent who fail to pay federal income taxes as mooching freeloaders who believe they are victims and entitled to handouts denigrates the memory of my mother and father, who worked hard all their lives to escape poverty and whose final years were made a bit more comfortable with programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Their son -- me -- was able to become the first in the family to attend college due to the student loan program. The values instilled in me by parents include honesty, hard work, responsibility, and a sense of citizenship. Poor all their lives, they were a model of integrity who would be insulted by a politician labeling them as irresponsible.

My father grew up during the Great Depression and dropped out of elementary school to work and support his family. He struggled throughout his life to read, and I fondly recall that one of our shared pleasures was my reading aloud the Western comic books which he enjoyed so much. During World War II, he served in the Army and was sent to Europe, one of the few times he left the Texas Panhandle where he grew up. After the war, he married and started a family. His lack of education limited his prospects, but he found employment with the Fort Worth and Denver Railroad. The history of union activity with the Railroad brotherhoods assured that his wages were decent, although the work was unsteady due to frequent layoffs.

During the periods of unemployment, my father would take me along as we went from door to door, asking if neighbors had any work for us. I was sometimes embarrassed when we stopped at the home of a classmate, but my father asserted that one should never be ashamed of honest work.

I also labored in the cotton fields of West Texas, working alongside my grandparents, mother, father, and younger brother. During the months of June and July we were paid seventy-five cents an hour to "chop cotton," which is actually chopping the weeds around the plants. For the late summer and early fall we labored in the fields picking cotton. I can still recall the weight of the cotton sack as I stumbled along the long rows of cotton, bent over and snapping the cotton bolls off the plants. In the hot August sun, it was excruciatingly hard work -- providing some insight into what American slavery was like, though I still enjoyed white privilege.

The product of this labor was that my parents were able to purchase a small two-bedroom home, where my brother and I shared a room, with a modest rate of interest due to my father’s World War II service. Nevertheless, they were always concerned that we would not be able to make the mortgage. We lived modestly, and my mother fed a family of four on twenty dollars a week. For a phone, we used a "party line," and dental care was something we could not afford. We had a couple of changes of clothing, and I vividly remember classmates who poked fun at my worn clothing.

In 1967, my father suffered a disabling heart attack after working overtime on the railroad wrecking crew clearing derailments. The last fifteen years of his life he was disabled, but Medicaid, railroad retirement, and Social Security allowed him to cope with growing medical expenses. My mother, who had a high school education, went to work as a bookkeeper and sales clerk. She continued to work after my father died, leaving the labor force when she was in her seventies. Her last years were difficult while suffering from dementia, but again Medicare, Social Security, and railroad retirement provided some benefits that allowed for her to maintain a degree of dignity before her death.

As for myself, my first major job beyond the cotton fields and newspaper route was the Neighborhood Youth Administration, one of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs that provided employment for underprivileged youth. I was able to work in a local cemetery, digging and maintaining burial sites.

After graduation from high school in 1967, my parents informed me that college deferments allowed one to temporarily avoid the draft and Vietnam. Alas, we had no money for college. Mitt Romney has demonstrated his lack of understanding for what life is like for the working poor in this nation by suggesting that students borrow money for college from their parents. While his affluent family might be able to afford such transactions, my parents were struggling to put food on the table, meet a mortgage, and take care of their health. However, I was able to attend college through the student loan and work study programs, which began under the Republican Eisenhower administration as a response to Sputnik and Soviet advances in science.

I found my niche at the university, eventually pursuing advanced degrees in history. After teaching for over thirty years at both the university and secondary levels, I am sending my children to college. I am still saddled with a mortgage as I got a late start in buying a home due to paying off college loans. And I did not have the Romney family connections from whom I might have borrowed money for a down payment. I pay taxes at a higher rate than Mr. Romney, but realizing the importance of the social safety net to my own family, paying my fair share to maintain opportunity for my fellow Americans is part of my civic duty rather than seeking tax shelters.

While the economic ideas of President Obama make more sense to me than the Republican approach to the recession, I certainly understand the Romney argument. I may disagree, but we can have a good debate about whether decreasing government regulations (I would prefer to call them safeguards) and cutting taxes for the wealthy will stimulate economic growth.

What I do not understand from Romney and others in his party are the attacks upon unions, Social Security, and Medicare -- all of which allowed my hard-working parents a degree of security in old age. I’m still waiting for that Mitt Romney apology, but on behalf of my parents I would like to thank Eugene Debs, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson for making their lives a little easier. In some ways my life story seems to affirm the idea of the American dream and social mobility, but any achievements on my part are the legacy of my parents and fellow citizens, working to maintain a safety net of equal opportunity for all Americans. These are not victimized, dependent, and socially irresponsible Americans.

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