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Stop the Granny Bashing: Despite What You May Think, Our Seniors Are in Trouble

We must fight the deficit hysterics' relentless granny-bashing. Most people don't grasp that this group has already been hit hard by budget cuts and the recession.

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But on a more basic level, it's likely they thought they'd insulated themselves from the wrath of seniors – a major demographic for the GOP – by leaving Medicare intact for anyone over 55 years of age. The problem for Republicans is that older Americans know quite well how difficult it can be to live out one's golden years in the United States, and they have no interest in making it much harder for their children and grandchildren when they reach retirement age. This is where ideology – the Right's emphasis on individuals taking care of themselves – meets the real world, one in which people suffer from heart attacks and strokes and require thousands of dollars in prescription drugs to stay alive.

The National Council on Aging did a study earlier this year which found that most people don't grasp the tenuous situation many of our elderly find themselves in today. Among the findings, as summarized by Kleyman:

  • Less than one-third of Americans knew that low-income elders now pay 25 percent of their incomes for health care out-of-pocket, despite having Medicare.

  • Only one in six people understood that 40 percent of seniors recently faced such housing problems as being unable to pay their mortgages or living in dilapidated housing.

  • Only one in five knew that nearly 6 million older Americans are at risk of going hungry.

  • Fewer than one-fifth of those surveyed knew that average credit-card debt for seniors was $10,000.

And whatever economic security enjoyed by older workers who are not yet eligible for benefits – those who would lose the most if the GOP's budget plan were enacted -- has been ravaged by the recession. A survey released this week by the American Association of Retired People (AARP), found that one in four older workers had burned through all of their retirement savings during the course of the downturn. As the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney noted, “12.4 percent of the 50-plus cohort told AARP they lost their health insurance, 49.5 percent said they delayed medical or dental care because of financial troubles and 13.5 percent said they started to collect Social Security retirement benefits earlier than they'd previously planned.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, they're talking about exacting some sort of “shared sacrifice” from this vulnerable population – making “hard choices.” But what makes the deficit hysterics' relentless granny-bashing so obscene is that this is a group that has already been hit hard by budget cuts – never mind what the “Ryan plan” would do to them if passed. As Paul Kleyman put it, all of that blather about sacrifice “fails to reflect the deep cuts to seniors’ program that have already been made in the 2011 budget.” This year's budget already “ includes stark reductions for seniors in such safety-net programs as low-income housing, home-energy assistance for those in extreme weather, and job training and placement.”

It's important to note the long-term context in which this is happening: for several decades, corporate America and the government have shrugged off much of the burden of providing working people a decent retirement. In 1989, the number of workers with 401(k) plans--subject to the ups and downs of the stock market--exceeded those with fixed-benefit pensions for the first time. Even mega-corporations got into the act; in 1998, nine out of 10 Fortune 100 companies still offered their employees a pension, but that number had been cut in half by 2008.

Budgets aren't just sheets full of numbers, they're ultimately a reflection of our priorities. We spend trillions on far-flung conflicts, hand out hundreds of billions in corporate welfare and subsidies, and we can certainly afford to keep our grandparents out of suffocating poverty. The only question we need to ask ourselves is: exactly what kind of society do we want to live in?

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