Saturday, October 24, 2009

You Go, Girl!

Ellen Goodman has long been one of my favorite columnists. I don't always agree with her take on things, but I know she has arrived at her position honestly. There are a few parts of her most recent column I have trouble with, but I still appreciated what she said because her conclusions are sound.

The column begins with a vignette of a three generation trip to the movies: her, her daughter, and her grandchild. She discovered that the tickets were priced differently for each, with the mother having to pay the most. Apparently that ticked Ms. Goodman off and forms the basis for her argument.

I repeat this dialogue and plot because my box office encounter occurred days after President Obama asked Congress to allocate $250 to the 57 million beneficiaries of Social Security and other federal entitlement programs, regardless of our income. This one-time special was framed as a way to compensate for the fact that older Americans will not get a cost-of-living increase in their 2010 checks. “Even as we seek to bring about recovery,’’ said the president, “we must act on behalf of those hardest hit by this recession.’’

Well, sure, but let’s go to the numbers. This will be the first time in 34 years that seniors will not find a raise in their checks. We are not getting a cost-of-living increase for one simple reason: The cost of living has decreased. The checks that rose 5.8 percent last year - largely on energy costs - are already buying more this year.

As for the idea that those on Social Security were “hardest hit’’ by the recession, not so fast. There’s evidence that older Americans suffered fewer mortgage foreclosures. They were no more affected by the stock market meltdown than other age groups, and retirees were obviously less affected by unemployment. And while, yes, they were hit by rising health care costs, were they hit harder than, say, citizens with no health insurance?

(Pssst...Ellen, you use the term "elders" at various points in the column. Why not be consistent and lose the "seniors" and the "elderly" terminology.)

While I agree with her that elders on Medicare probably have made out better in the last couple of years than people with private insurance, and certainly better than those without any insurance, I think a lot of elders did get hit proportionately harder by the stock market meltdown. Those IRAs and 401ks, the necessary supplements to Social Security for most people, really tanked in value. Unlike younger people still in the work force, retired elders don't have the opportunity to rebuild those accounts and don't have the time to wait for them to recover.

But back to that $250 offset for the loss of a cost of living raise for those on Social Security:

There is no question that some of the neediest Americans are elderly, especially single women. But age is not the same as income. Indeed, poverty among the elderly has gone down from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2008. Today, elders are half as likely to be poor as are children.

So, why exactly would we give $250 to every senior at every income while poor children remain in deep trouble? How do we justify the transfer of $13 billion or $14 billion to seniors? ...

The president has long talked about “responsibility,’’ especially among children. By 2030, about 20 percent of Americans will be over 65. What are we asking of them? To be nothing but passive recipients of entitlement? Is their only social responsibility to remain financially independent of their children? ...

I’ve always thought that elders were the ones designated by society to take the long view - back to the past and forward to a future when we won’t even be around. In that long view, caring flows down the generations.

Now we face this tiny but telling test. The $250 moment. Wouldn’t it be something if those of us on Social Security looked this particular gift horse in the mouth and said no to Congress? And if a check arrives in the mail, wouldn’t it be something if elders who are able, endorsed it to schools that are meagerly training the next generation of Social Security supporters?

I tend not to think of Social Security as "an entitlement." I think of it as an annuity policy I have been paying for since I got my first job at 16, just as my mother paid her her policy. That said, I fully agree with Ellen Goodman on the $250 gift to the elders. It's not necessary for most, and far too little for the rest. Put that $13 or $14 billion where it will do a far greater good. Housing, job creation, and, yes, education.

And if we elders can't get Congress to be reasonable on the issue, I think we should do as Ellen Goodman suggests: donate that $250 to the closest public school for supplies. I'm sure the teachers would be grateful.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home