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SOCIAL SECURITY SHOULD BE SEEN AS INSURANCE POLICY, NOT BIRTHRIGHT

If you believe the people who keep track of these things, more Americans are living in poverty right now than have been in poverty since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

The reason for this, they say, is President Bush and his bad economy, high unemployment and a minimum wage so low that a full-time worker with a spouse and two children does not make enough money to climb out of the poverty category, which, for a family of four, is somewhere around $13,000.Without the economic "incentive" of a higher minimum wage, the thinking goes, it is unreasonable to ask people to work because they can stay home and make almost as much for that.

And because very little of the help these people who stay at home receive counts toward that $13,000 income, they are destined to be part of the poverty statistics for as long as poverty statistics are kept. The old cycle-of-poverty thesis.

I've got another thesis for you. My thesis is that it's not Bush's bad economy. It's ours. And the reason it is so bad is because we aren't supporting ourselves.

Anyway, have a look at your own child - maybe she's 5 years old - and imagine putting, oh, a third of your yearly expenses on her tab, to be paid with interest when she goes to work.

That is exactly the way this country does business.

There is, however, a way out, but I think we've got a long wait before either Bush or Bill Clinton sets out in this direction. We have to cut the net.

There is a rule of nature that, with the exception of human beings, is still at work in every species on the planet. It says that you have to work to eat.

And toward that end, the word "entitlement" ought to be taken from the language.

Yes, Social Security.

Social Security isn't going to work, not long term. In 20 years there won't be nearly as much money coming in as going out.

If it's going to work, it has to be for the poor who are too old or sick to work. It ought to be regarded as an insurance policy, not a birthright.

Likewise, Medicaid and Medicare are out of control. Start with a self-evident fact: A national health plan cannot work if the government - at least the government of the United States - runs it. The bureaucratic maze that operates the health-care machinery will end up being as expensive as the care itself.

Then consider another fact. The medical expenses for the last two years of your life ordinarily cost more than all the rest of the years combined.

What you get is not to die for a little while, which is not always the same thing as living.

And so it is reasonable to ask yourself, is this worth the price?

And if it is, you should be ready to pay for it yourself.

That's pretty cold, I know. But in the end, our resources are finite, and we're going to have to choose where to put them.

It seems to me that they should go to the helpless, not the hopeless. They should be an investment, not a gift.