John MacPherson is an 86-year-old World War II veteran with a problem, one that Washington isn’t helping one bit this week.
While his six children raise families of their own across New England, he lives alone in his home in Dorchester, not far from his childhood home in South Boston. His problem: The fact that he receives fuel assistance probably means he is about to become a victim of the so-called sequester budget cuts.
Barring some unlikely compromise, those cuts — arbitrary spending reductions across the federal government — will go into effect Friday.
Truth be told, MacPherson is already feeling squeezed. As a retiree, he lives on $988 a month in Social Security benefits and $188 in disability. His additional fuel assistance benefits for the winter ran out in December, and the usual extension has been held up because of the looming budget cuts.
This past January, he got a jolt when he had a heating bill for $591.39. He swallowed hard and paid it, though it consumed more than half of that month’s Social Security check. He is sitting on a bill now for $775.99 and isn’t sure how he’ll pay it.
Understand that MacPherson is not angry or entitled. He’s just confused by the political debate over the national debt. “I try to listen, but I get disgusted,” he said. “They’re bickering all the time. I wish they could just get together.”
It is understandable that MacPherson is puzzled by the across-the-board budget slashing about to commence in the nation’s capital. Republicans keep insisting it was President Obama’s fault. The Democrats say the Republicans voted for it and helped bring it about by resisting increases in the debt ceiling, an issue no one had ever paid any attention to until it became a bargaining chip.
In talk-show terms, both sides have a point, though the debate means absolutely nothing to people like John MacPherson, who are just trying to make ends meet.
With all due respect to the warring factions in Washington, I think he deserves better treatment from his government. MacPherson joined the Navy in 1943. In June 1944, MacPherson’s ship, the USS Quincy, was off the beach in Normandy, supporting the D-day invasion.
“There were 30 of us on the ship from Boston, and 10 of us were from South Boston,” he said. “We buried 28 in one day from my ship.”
He left the Navy in 1946. He worked for years driving a truck, until an accident left him partially disabled.
He gets his fuel assistance through Action for Boston Community Development. He was eligible for $990 in assistance this winter, a mark he passed in December. Normally there would be funds to help those who reach the ceiling, but the sequester threatens to eliminate that.
“Usually at this point, if the state can make the case for bad weather and rising prices, the federal government will release emergency funds,” said ABCD spokeswoman Susan Kooperstein. “That’s usually enough to give all the clients another 100 gallons, which can get them through the winter.”
I asked John Drew, ABCD’s chief executive, how he thinks the sequester will play out. Drew is a savvy political player, but he pleaded ignorance.
“I have no idea,” Drew said. “I’d like to see them reach some kind of compromise, but I don’t know if that will happen. Our political leadership is at a low ebb, in my opinion.”
The sequester will hurt a lot of people — without, so far as I can see, actually helping anyone. A long-running debate over the size of the federal government and how to manage the economy is being played out in the lives of people across the country, and few in power seem to be paying much attention.
For MacPherson, the debt argument is just so much noise. He’ll be relieved, he said, when the battle ends.
“I just hope they figure it out,” he said.