Brown vs. Gray

Brown vs. Gray

America is far from meeting the needs of its existing older adult population, much less prepared for the years ahead

By Marvin Schachter 04/04/2013

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When it comes to federal and state budget issues, we have been hearing a lot lately about the road leading to sustained competition between “brown” and “gray.”
The grays are the more than 85 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, plus those who are older and already receiving Social Security.  The grays, people over 65, are roughly 80 percent white.
The browns, according to journalist Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal, are the 95 million people born from 1982 to 2002.  About two-fifths of this generation is nonwhite, Brownstein found, and that number rises in the generation born after them.  The browns include children under 18, who, according to the US Census, are 54 percent people of color.
For this population, of course education is the primary concern, and it would be difficult to find a school system that is satisfied with the financial support it receives to meet the challenges it faces. Budget cuts and teacher layoffs have increased class sizes, closed school libraries, limited curriculum diversity and reduced guidance programs. In California, cuts to state funding for post-secondary education have resulted in tuition increases and staff reductions that especially limit entry of lower-income students.
Proponents of the thesis that we have a gray vs. brown’ situation will now point to the   fact that while education is mainly state and locally funded, in general, the federal government spends $7 per senior for  every $1 it spends on young people. But that argument assumes that we have solved the problems that we face with an exploding population of older adults, and the solution to meeting the recognized needs of the browns is to reduce support for the grays.
But have we solved the problems of a population, which by 2020 — only seven years from now — will have 64 million more people eligible for Medicare?
The fact is people are living longer. In 1940, life expectancy was 63.5 years. Today, life expectancy is 78.3 years, and the fastest-growing population cohort is people over 90.
We are very far from recognizing the needs of our existing older adult population, much less preparing for the years ahead.
In discussing current congressional proposals to modify the manner in which Social Security payments are computed, and thus reducing payments, AARP research pointed out:
* Social Security is 90 percent of the income of one-third of beneficiaries over 80.
* Half of those over 80 had yearly incomes of less than $19,500.
* Nearly one in six older Americans live in poverty
* Two out of three families headed by a person over 75 had zero retirement savings.
* For the aged who need assistance in living, the high costs are prohibitive:
Private-pay costs are at $40,000 per year and nursing home costs are often more than $100,000 a year.
Despite the inevitable need for long-term care for the “older old” people in their 80s, 90s and older, we simply have no programs at all.
Are there no solutions?
Do we have to choose between young people and older people in this country, the richest nation in the world?
Of course not.
As I write this, the headlines read “S&P 500 hits record” and “S&P 500, Dow keep climbing.”
I have also been reading the annual reports of major corporations. Corporate profits have exploded, and million-dollar increases in executive salaries are the rule.
As difficult as it is, given the current congressional alignment, it is necessary for effective, vigorous advocacy for national and state budgets that actually meet this nation’s needs.
Old against young?
Gray against brown?
Nonsense. We are all in the same leaky boat.
An educational system — K-12, college, graduate school, open to all, well supported — is essential. It is everybody’s issue, because the future of the American economy depends on it.
It is a senior issue, because seniors are concerned about their children and grandchildren. I have never met a senior who wasn’t.
And for baby-boomers, and younger folks, regarding senior issues and well-being, let me remind them that, if they are lucky, they too will one day be seniors. n

Marvin Schachter, a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults, is also a senior policy adviser for AARP California and a member of the Pasadena Conference on Aging Planning Committee. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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