Mueller was ambivalent about Social Security. “I love Social Security. Leave it alone,” he said, and then launched into a discussion of privatization. “I would have so much more if they just let me have the money. I’d be happy if they give me an honest return. It’s not an honest return,” he told me. Then he asked if I knew how much garbage had been added to Social Security. I asked what he meant. Turns out he was unhappy people got disability benefits, and that he had heard that an illegitimate child from a brain-dead mother had gotten benefits. “When you change the program politically to appeal to the public and don’t fund it honestly, it’s criminal, and that’s why it is running out of money.”
Medicare was on the minds of older Wisconsinites. In Sturgeon Bay, I met Dan Reynen, who was working as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Reynen, now age sixty-six, had worked most of his life as a commercial fisherman—a hard job, for sure. His health had suffered, and he walked with a limp. He chuckled as he told me he needed a new knee and a new backbone. The second joint in his spine had degenerated.
After leaving the fishing business, Reynen worked in a factory making wire products and then landed the job at Wal-Mart. He took his Social Security benefits when he was sixty-two, and now gets $632 a month. “That’s not a lot,” he said. “That’s why I have to work right now.” He works an eight-hour day and believes he will have to work until he reaches age seventy. The week I talked to Reynen, the Census Bureau reported that seniors were enjoying some of the biggest income gains in decades. That is, at least some of them are.
Reynen worries about Medicare. He knows he needs it to pay for the knee replacement he’s getting soon. “I don’t see it being that good in the future because of the economy and the price of things,” he told me.
He said he voted for Obama and probably would vote for Feingold. But like a lot of other Wisconsinites, he was thinking more about the Packers than politics. “I’m a 100 percent Packer fan,” he told me. Had he ever seen a game at Lambeau Field? “I couldn’t afford to go to the games,” he said. “I watch them on my new TV at home. It’s thirty-seven inches.”
Erica Hofstetter was tending bar at the Sunset Bowl, a bowling alley in Waukesha. She is another Census Bureau statistic. Almost fifty-one million people had no health insurance last year. Hofstetter was one of them. She still has no coverage, but had heard “rumors” about being able to get coverage under her parents’ insurance. She hasn’t looked into that because she heard you had to be twenty-five to get the coverage.
Hofstetter is twenty-three and works part time at the bowling alley, and hopes to return to college soon. She says she wasn’t into school when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus, but now feels ready to return to her studies in English and creative writing.
In high school, she said, she was voted most likely to become president. “I was very political. But as I get older, I get less and less interested in politics,” she told me. Still, Hofstetter had firm opinions. About health reform, she said, “it’s basically government-run health care paid for by our taxes. It would be the government taking over health companies and run by some branch of government.” She watched a lot of the coverage of the reform debate on C-Span and noted that she saw the final debate the night the law was voted on.