FLIP SIDE: The Undeserving Old

First welfare, now Social Security. Undeterred by the febrile condition of the world financial markets, the drive to "save," privatize, and otherwise snuff out that venerable vestige of the New Deal is back and gaining steam.We can expect that, as in the case of welfare, there will be an all-out propaganda effort to demonize the program's recipients. In the build-up to welfare "reform," people on welfare were consistently portrayed as promiscuous, substance-abusing, child-neglecting layabouts. If the same tactics prevail, we will soon be hearing chilling stories about geezers mugging teenagers and squandering their Social Security checks on Viagra and vodka.Sadly, the elderly may have an even harder time defending themselves than the poverty-stricken single mothers did. Few of the latter, perhaps a total of thirty-five out of four million, ever fit the stereotype of the welfare queen spawning baby after baby in order to augment her benefits and hence her supply of mind-altering drugs. But the elderly are vulnerable to all of the predictable charges.Lazy? Well, how many eighty-year-olds make the slightest attempt to support themselves? How many ninety-seven-year-olds can even recall how to set an alarm clock?As for "dependency," that great bugaboo of the welfare-reformers-visit a nursing home and you will find people who have been rendered so thoroughly dependent by Social Security that they no longer exert themselves to perambulate or lift spoon to mouth.There is no question about it: The longer one lives off one's Social Security checks, the more likely one is to maunder and drool.You think that no one could be so churlish as to stigmatize our seniors? Consider the fact that the drive against Social Security is being led by some of the same think tanks-and even the same individuals within them-who blazed the trail to welfare reform. Michael Tanner, for example, famed for his Savanarola-like excoriations of the welfare poor, now serves as the Cato Institute's point man on Social Security privatization. For men like this-dedicated to the abolition of all government activities not involving the use of firearms-welfare was only a warm-up for Social Security, a chance to test-drive their most scurrilous slanders and hone their stigmatizing skills.In the case of the elderly, there is a growing body of prejudice for the "reformers" and privatizers to work with. Even the considerably pre-elderly must have shuddered when a writer was fired by Disney from her screenwriting job when it was revealed that she is not nineteen, as her resume claimed, but a doddering thirty-one. Frank Rich reports in The New York Times that veteran screenwriters (say, those over fifty) are busily editing their resumes to remove credits from ancient series like Mash, lest would-be employers judge them over the hill.Most cultures to date have treasured the elderly for their wisdom and experience; ours fears that these very qualities are antithetical to healthy ratings.John Glenn's space flight highlighted America's tortured ambivalence toward the elderly. First, it should be observed that his flight served no scientific purpose whatsoever. NASA said in the beginning that it was an opportunity to study the "aging process," although it should have been obvious that, at seventy-seven, Glenn has pretty much completed the process. Later, NASA claimed that the goal was to study "weightlessness," though everyone knows this subject can be studied quite adequately in the CNN studios themselves.So the real purpose of his mission was probably the propagandistic one -- "to give our senior citizens a boost." Which has a fine and filial sound to it until you ask yourself, why did they need a boost in the first place? Is the real function of Cape Canaveral to rehabilitate unpopular social groups, and, if so, can we expect to soon see the first crack-dealer and IRS clerk in space? Or could the Glenn flight have been a plot by the Social Security reformers, aimedat proving you're never too old to hold down a job, even one involving long hours and mortal danger?The advertising industry has already been enlisted in the campaign to portray the elderly as undeserving, and certainly repulsive, wretches. Sure, they're always telling us "it's great to be silver" and that "life is an adventure" if you manage to get to fifty without losing the ability to dress yourself. But watch the evening news and you will find that these upbeat vitamin pitches are buried within a torrent of commercials for denture adhesives, incontinence products, arthritis remedies, and fiber-based laxatives-all aimed to make aging look considerably less attractive than the well-known alternative. And what do these commercials do for the image of the elderly? They promote the idea that any gray-head, no matter how venerable -- a judge, for example, or a high school principal -- is probably sitting in a wet diaper and obsessing about the prospects for a successful bowel movement sometime in the coming week.Now, of course, the privatizers will insist that they only want to help the elderly-by allowing everyone to take the money they would have paid in taxes to the Social Security Administration and invest it directly in the stock market on their own. Leaving aside the possible return of the business cycle, if not a global market meltdown, do we really want to spend latter days cheering the capitalists on? As in: Gee, I hope they downsize me so my stock will go up! Not to mention the torture of spending those golden years, which you have no doubt penciled in for good works and great books, following the NASDAQ and Dow. And imagine the humiliation of begging on street corners at age sixty-five, while the affluent young stroll by sneering, "Old fool, she brought this on herself by failing to pick up any Netscape shares back in '94 when the prices were low!"Lengthy contemplation of the privatized and stigmatized future that awaits us may lead many of the pre-elderly to end it all now. In fact, that might very well be the privatizers' secret solution to the Social Security "crisis": Mass self-euthanasia on the part of the recipients-to-be. This would also explain the scientifically indefensible John Glenn flight: It was meant to test-market the idea of launching geezers into space, where they will orbit peacefully for all of eternity, with no need for any Social Security checks.Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Blood Rites" and "The Snarling Citizen," writes monthly for The Progressive.

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