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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Two Policies for Young Farm Families

Updated: Dec 25, 2019

The two most important presidential policy issues for young families that want to farm responsibly and sustainably are “Medicare for All” and “free college tuition.” Many beginning farmers would be willing and able to live on the income they can make on small sustainable farms. However, they can’t make the high monthly payments for health insurance and farming is too risky to go without it. So one of the spouses has to get an off-farm job to cover health insurance costs. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the other to keep up with the farming operation. College tuition becomes a major obstacle for young farm families as the children approach college age. It’s difficult to save enough money farming to pay high tuition costs and equally difficult for college graduates to pay off large college loans by farming small farms.

Medicare for All and free college tuition would make it possible for thousands of young families who want to be responsible, sustainable family farmers to have a good life and make a decent living on a small farm. Both proposals are being attacked by critics as being idealistic and unaffordable. However, Medicare for all seems to be the favorite target of political defenders of the corporate medical status quo. The three points most frequently raised in attack ads seem to be affordability, accessibility, and sacrifice of current health insurance benefits.

With respect to affordability, estimates vary, but the consensus seems to be that Medicare for All would cost between $30 and $40 trillion over a period of ten years. Obviously, this is a lot of money. However, it’s not when compared with current and projected future healthcare costs. U.S. healthcare spending in 2017 was $3.5 trillion, has continued to rise, and will likely rise into the foreseeable future—unless major changes are made to the healthcare system. Current estimates would put the cost of Medicare for All at about $3.5 trillion per year, no more that we are currently paying for health care. The difference would be that everyone would have access to all of the health care they need—including vision, dental, and hearing. Everyone could also access health care when they need it, rather than put off treatment they can’t afford until easily treated ailments become medical emergencies.

Critics point to long delays in receiving medical treatment as a likely consequence of a government run healthcare program. They point to Canada and other countries where people are said to endure long waiting periods for medical procedures. In reality, friends in Canada have consistently told me that Canadians get treatment when they need it. Urgent medical situations are treated immediately and serious conditions are treated in a timely manner. Longer waits are for treatments where time is not a medical issue but a matter of patient preference. Regardless, the experience of people in other countries need not be indicative of healthcare treatment under Medicare for All. There is no reason to expect that patients’ access to health care, including timeliness of procedure and choice of doctors, would any different than with the current Medicare program. The estimated per-patient cost of Medicare for All is considerably higher than per-patient costs of health care in other countries with government-run programs. There is every reason to expect that the level of care and accessibility likewise would be higher.

Finally, people who currently have excellent employer-paid healthcare insurance are concerned that they will lose their superior benefits under a government run program that excludes private healthcare insurance providers. Corporate and government retirees in particular may have sacrificed salary for healthcare benefits or have paid into programs during their working year to ensure good healthcare insurance after retirement—when their healthcare costs are likely to rise. However, there is no reason that corporate and government employers could not be required to subsidize the costs of Medicare for All for their employees and retirees to the same extent that they currently subsidize the costs of private insurance programs. The employees would receive levels of healthcare equal to or better than their current benefits, because everything would be covered for everyone. Those who are already paying or have paid for healthcare insurance as employees would simply pay less, or nothing, while their employers make up the difference.

I will save my defense of the free college tuition for another time. I will simply point out that America could afford tuition-free higher education in public universities when I started to college in 1957. “Student fees” were $67.50 per semester, regardless of number of credit hours. There was no “college tuition” at the University of Missouri. That would be less than $650 per semester today. Tuition at the MU today is listed at more than $12,000 per semester for 14 credit hours. States need to step up to their responsibilities and make their “public universities” affordable to the “public’—not just the wealthy and academic elite. I realize a lot more kids are going to college these days than when I started. But there are also a lot more people making more money who could afford to pay more taxes to give more kids a chance not just for “job training” but for a purposeful and rewarding life.

Also, a few at the top income levels are making most of the money while college graduates are having a hard time finding jobs that will allow them to pay off their student loans. Students need to be able to graduate from college essentially debt-free, so they can create their own jobs, become family farmers or independent business operators, so they can willingly pay taxes and eventually hire others, rather than become enslaved in a corporate economic system that keeps them working harder and harder for less and less.

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