New America Media: The Future of Old Age in America

Photo: National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Social Security

Unsilent Generation, Commentary, James Ridgeway, Posted: Jan 03, 2012

 National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Social Security

WASHINGTON, D.C.–In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir observed that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves: “Until the moment it is upon us,” she wrote, “old age is something that only affects other people. So it is understandable that society should prevent us from seeing our own kind, our fellow men, when we look at the old.”

This disconnect has, no doubt, been helpful to those who favor cutting the so-called old age entitlements, Social Security and Medicare — which, these days, seems to include just about everyone in Washington. Now that the congressional supercommittee, charged with reducing the federal deficit, has gone down in flames, some are calling for a return to the plan proposed by the chairmen who headed Obama’s Simpson-Bowles deficit commission last year. Like the supercommittee, the commission itself couldn’t agree on a plan for Congress to vote on.

Debunked Myths Ignored

Amidst all the bipartisan warring, one thing most of these committee members agree on is that the budget will, in large part, be balanced on the backs of old people, through cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The only differences are over how these cuts should be made, and how large they should be.

In the unlikely event that the rich are made to pay something toward deficit reduction, in the form of increased taxes, their contribution will pale in comparison to the share paid by elders in the form of reduced benefits. In part, that’s because the enemies of entitlements have succeeded in depicting these lifesaving government programs as the cause of our economic woes — a myth that has repeatedly been debunked to little avail. 

By extension, they depict our current fiscal crisis as a standoff between the old and the young, rather than the rich and the poor. Former Senator Alan Simpson, the Republican handpicked by Obama to co-chair his bipartisan 2010 deficit commission, was fond of talking about the perfidy of “fat cat geezers,” who dared to oppose entitlement cuts at the expense of his — and everyone’s — grandchildren. 

Simpson’s image of old people — “who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount” — seems to have gained traction as the dominant view of elders in this country. This belies the reality of the lives lived by millions of older Americans, for whom a comfortable retirement was never more than a distant dream. For them, old age means work or poverty – or, sometimes, both.

A More Rounded View…

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