More than 75 years ago, Americans -- horrified by stories of elderly citizens starving, homeless, struggling in the middle of a Great Depression -- made a promise.
If workers and their employers would agree to a small tax, the government said, it would guarantee a minimum level of comfort for almost all of its senior citizens.
"We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life," President Franklin Roosevelt said the day he signed the bill creating Social Security. "But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen, and to his family ... against poverty-ridden old age."
Thirty years later, this time in Independence, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill that raised the stakes. With another small tax, Johnson said, seniors would also be guaranteed access to quality health care after retirement -- Medicare.
Today, Social Security and Medicare are considered landmarks of America's social safety net, ironclad commitments that have lifted tens of millions of older Americans out of the fear of poverty and disease. Except on the very fringes of American politics, the idea of a country without both programs is unthinkable.
But both have come at a price earlier generations could have scarcely imagined.
It will cost the United States $1.2 trillion dollars this year to pay for Social Security and Medicare -- fully one dollar for every three dollars in the national budget. Social Security and Medicare now cost more than the national defense. More than every state, local and federal dollar spent on schools. More than highways, law enforcement, national parks, postal service, scientific research, interest on the debt, border security, farm supports and dozens of other programs -- combined.
And in just 10 years, the cost of Social Security and Medicare is expected to double, to an almost unfathomable $2.4 trillion.
"We're in serious trouble," said David John, a Social Security expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "And the longer you delay, the worse the fix is going to be."
No political discussion is more important than reforming Social Security and Medicare. And no discussion has been more clouded by name-calling and misinformation this election year.
Death panels. Vouchers. Trust fund raids. Mediscare. Republicans and Democrats, locked in a furious battle for votes, have promised to protect the country's two biggest programs, but have been maddeningly vague on exactly how they'd do it.
If you're looking for the final resting place for political moderation, Medicare and Social Security are the gates to the graveyard.
Seniors, naturally, have taken notice.
"It is a worry," said 73-year old Jan Fonald of Belton, discussing changes to the two programs. "It would affect an awful lot of us senior citizens."
Jim Belwood of Overland Park, 93, said politicians know the risk.
"There's no way in the world they're going to do damage to those programs without ruining their political future," he said. "I don't care whether it's a Democrat or Republican, they can't do it."
Many elderly quite reasonably claim they're entitled to Social Security and Medicare. Having made payments into both programs for decades -- and watching their private retirement accounts erode -- seniors feel they're now simply taking what they're owed.
But exploding costs, declining employment, and the crush of the baby boom have twisted financing for both entitlements into knots, making it harder and harder to redeem the multi-generational promise.
"It's a mess we've seen coming for many, many, many years," said Michael Linden, director of tax and budget policy for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Fixing that mess, of course, will affect everyone, not just seniors. Taxes may go up. Services and benefits designed to protect the poor may be reduced. Access to health care for families and workers may be harder and more expensive.
Sooner, rather than later, America will need a serious, clear-eyed conversation about the promises Roosevelt and Johnson made, and how they can now be honored without bankrupting the country.