Marvin Schachter Marvin Schachter

Seniors in the crosshairs

Lawmakers target the elderly in our equal-opportunity financial crisis

By Marvin Schachter 04/21/2011

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Sad to say, there is threatening cloud hovering over this year’s 10th Annual Pasadena Conference on Aging. True to form, some 1,600 folks over 50, plus geriatric experts and providers of senior services, will meet to discuss, learn, agree and disagree on how best to  successfully, usefully and happily — well, at least as happily as possible — grow older. A plenary session, 32 workshops and 77 or so informational tables, plus continental breakfast and lunch: it will be great day. 
 
Why the cloud? The federal budget crisis and the very similar financial difficulties in every state, most certainly in California, threaten to upend the aging care system that has provided both security and support to nearly every American.
 
But the budget crisis is an equal opportunity threat to the general welfare and well-being of our entire society.
 
I am going to list a somewhat random series of already promulgated and/or planned financial cutbacks. Consider them, please, in terms of what is happening to the lives and futures of the millions of individuals affected. What will they do? How will they survive?

The Senior Community Service Employment program will fire 83,000 very low-income seniors.
Community health centers will lose $600 million, depriving 5 million low-income Americans of basic health services.
Every school district in California has sent pink slips to primary and secondary school teachers, notifying them of coming layoffs. Classes of 40 to 50 students will result.
The approved federal budget cuts $500 million from the federal health and nutrition program for women, infants and children.
California state universities will lose $500 million, and tuition will increase by 10 percent.
Community colleges will reduce faculties and student enrollment. 
Housing for low-income elderly has been cut by 51 percent — from $825 million to $450 million — just as the increasing older population demand for affordable housing has sharply increased.
Environmental protection restrictions and cutbacks have limited or eliminated programs protecting water and air quality, or enforcing existing laws.

There are innumerable other examples of recent legislative and administrative actions that have significantly affected our lives. Important as they are, they are only a storm warning of the more fundamental issues that have been raised by the passage of the House Resolution on the 2012 budget.
 
Social Security, now 75 years old, is the foundation of the American aging system. Ninety-four percent of all workers are covered. Fifty-four million people receive Social Security; 64 percent are retired workers.
 
It is important to note that it is an insurance program; 15 percent of recipients are disabled workers, 8 percent are children, 5 percent are spouses, and 8 percent are widows and parents.
 
Although Social Security is entirely self-financed and has not added 1 cent to the budget deficit, it has long been a target. Proposals by President George W. Bush to reform Social Security by turning it into an individually controlled private investment system were roundly and nearly universally rejected.
 
Without a doubt, it is still a target.
 
A more immediate target is the existing Medicare system for those under 55. Older people would remain in the existing system; those younger would buy their insurance from a private insurer. It would seem obvious that such a system would be a bonanza for profit-making insurance companies, but end the existing guarantee of secure, permanent health coverage.
 
For those above 55, the House 2012 budget proposals include financial caps that reduce benefits. It would also repeal important sections in Medicare that were in the Affordable Care Act — so-called Obamacare. Those provisions, welcomed by seniors, include (a) closing the “doughnut hole” in prescription drug benefits, (b) expanding Medicare for the very poor, and (c) establishing a voluntary insurance program providing for long-term care needs.
 
It seems obvious to me that we are at a crucial turning point in our country’s history. During the last 80 or so years we have made significant progress in building a more equal, more just, more compassionate society, but we are very far from perfect and  progress is never in a straight upward direction.
 
I suggest that this nation is rich enough, wise enough and righteous enough to balance both its budget and human needs ... or at least we should work to make it so.

Marvin Schachter is a member of the California Executive Council on AARP and the Los Angeles Commission for Older Adults. Schachter is also a lifetime board member of the ACLU-Southern California. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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