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


“We lived very well,” said Norma Hair, 71, over a shaky table at the small pizzeria she runs in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with 68-year-old Carol Schmidt, her wife and partner of over 30 years. “In 1979, Carol was making $33,000 per year, which was a lot of money back then. Then I rose to the position of supervisor of accounting in a company. So, our combined income [in the early-1980s] was probably about $60,000.”

The two women are sharp, with bright, youthful eyes and a slightly wicked sense of humor. But their bodies betray their years. “The reason we have nothing,” says Hair, “is because we spent everything we could on medical to keep Carol alive when we were in the United States.” Both women suffer from chronic heart problems in addition to other ailments.

“Hospitals have to treat you for life-threatening illnesses,“ explains Hair. “[Carol] got two lifesaving surgeries for nothing. But it was getting harder and harder, so I decided that it was easier if we traveled to different cities.”

So they did. They sold their home, bought an RV and toured the nation's emergency rooms. “We were on the road for three and a half years,” says Schmidt, “just so we could go to a new ER each time and they wouldn't be suspicious -- oh, you're back again?"

The two have lived in Mexico since 2002, in part because of their love for the country, but also because they can live well on their combined income of $2,200 per month – Social Security, a little money from a self-published book and Schmidt's small pension. The health care is cheap, too – Schmidt had what she described as an “atrial fib situation” a few weeks before our interview, and an overnight stay at the hospital cost them $45. The ambulance ride required only a “donation,” and the women offered 200 pesos – about $18 dollars.

They've also got Medicare in the US to fall back on. “I had a serious operation in 2003, and I did go back,” says Schmidt. “My surgeon told me, 'I'm going to operate or you're going to die.'” Even inexpensive health care can add up when the procedures are complicated, and the two women couldn't afford to pay for the surgery out-of-pocket. In other words, Carol Schmidt owes her life to the relatively threadbare social safety-net that their country of birth provides.

They are two among millions of older American struggling to get by. “One out of three seniors in the United States is economically insecure,” Howard Bedlin of the National Council on Aging told journalist Paul Kleyman. “Yet the public perception is that seniors are doing fine and not struggling.”

The GOP may lose control of the House as a just reward for passing Paul Ryan's draconian budget – one that would replace the popular single-payer Medicare system with vouchers the elderly would then fork over to private insurance companies (assuming they'd cover them). It's somewhat of a political mystery why they'd touch that third rail given that the measure has no chances of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, much less surviving Obama's veto pen. I've argued that it was the result of a party believing its own spin:

For years, the American Right has portrayed itself as representing “real America,” as Sarah Palin put it. They've long characterized the U.S. as a “center-right” nation full of people who hate “big government,” and they've portrayed popular social safety-net programs as somehow being foreign, if not unconstitutional signs of “creeping socialism.” Last year, when they swept into control of the House, they convinced themselves that the American public had enthusiastically handed them a mandate.

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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