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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Getting Old And Poor In A Gilded Age

by digby

The latest bright idea for chipping away at elder security is to change the benefits formula via the "chained CPI" (consumer price index.) It's one of those wonky things that they probably figure is easy to sell to the public because it sounds like a simple formality. But this is the effect:

Cutting the Social Security COLA by Changing the Way Inflation is Calculated Would Especially Hurt Women shows that women will be hit hardest by changing the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment from the CPI-W to the “chained CPI”. This proposed change delivers a triple whammy to women. Since women live longer than men, they face deeper cuts in their Social Security benefits under the chained CPI because the cuts get larger each year. Women rely more on income from Social Security than do men, so these cuts would represent a greater share of their total retirement income. And since older women are already more economically vulnerable than older men, these cuts will leave more of them unable to meet basic needs...

The cuts from switching to the chained CPI may look small to some policy makers and editorial writers, but they would seriously affect the ability of many elderly beneficiaries to make ends meet. For example, the average monthly cost of food for a single elderly individual is $231 per month ($53 per week in 2010 dollars), based on national data from the Elder Economic Security Standard Index developed by Wider Opportunities for Women and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Thus a benefit cut of $56 per month, or $672 per year-the cut at age 80 from the reduced COLA for an individual with an initial monthly benefit of $1,100-is equivalent to over a week's worth of food each month or 13 weeks of food that year." (Pg. 3)

The older you get the less money you receive. But hey, I anticipate a lot of job openings for 85 year old women, so they shouldn't have any problem supplementing their income. (On the other hand, catfood is pretty cheap at Trader Joes, so it's not like they'll starve or anything.)

I ran into this elderly lady at the Vets the other day who was weeping and broken-hearted because she had to choose between medication for herself and her beloved cat. Perhaps that sounds like "tough shit" to a lot of people --- the old lady should be grateful to be able to pay for her own medication. (My vet worked something out with her, I gathered, but it's got to be a constant problem.) But eing old, alone and poor, perhaps with only a pet for companionship, is something that could happen to any of us. You don't know what kind of curve balls you'll be thrown in this life. All citizens of this vastly wealthy country should be able to live out the last years of their lives in dignity regardless of whether they were "winners" in their working years.

Here's the truly perverse thing about all this: SS benefits should not be cut, that's obvious. But the truth is that they are inadequate and actually need to rise. This piece by Tom Geoghegan makes the case:

As a labor lawyer I cringe when Democrats talk of "saving" Social Security. We should not "save" it but raise it. Right now Social Security pays out 39 percent of the average worker's preretirement earnings. While jaws may drop inside the Beltway, we could raise that to 50 percent. We'd still be near the bottom of the league of the world's richest countries -- but at least it would be a basement with some food and air. We have elderly people living on less than $10,000 a year. Is that what Democrats want to "save"?

"But we can't afford it!" Oh, come on: We have a federal tax rate equal to nearly 15 percent of our G.D.P. -- far below the take in most wealthy countries. Let's wake up: the biggest crisis we face is that most of us have nothing meaningful saved for retirement. I know. I started my career wanting to be a pension lawyer. In the 1970s, lawyers like me expected there to be big pots of private pensions for hourly workers. By the 1980s, as factories closed, I was filing hopeless lawsuits to claw back bits and pieces of benefits. Now there are even fewer bits and pieces to get.

A recent Harris poll found that 34 percent of Americans have nothing saved for retirement -- not even a hundred bucks. In this lost decade, that percentage is sure to go up. At retirement the lucky few with a 401(k) typically have $98,000. As an annuity that's about $600 a month -- not exactly an upper-middle-class lifestyle. It's too late for Congress to come up with some new savings plan -- a new I.R.A. that grows hair, or something. There's no time. We have to improve the one public pension program in place.

Read on. It's not impossible or economically onerous to do it at all except for the fact that our political system is so broken that the only debate that's even allowed in the public sphere is the level of pain that must be born by the young, sick and elderly.

Alternet is promoting something interesting along this line that I think is an excellent idea --- they are trying to raise the boomer consciousness about this. I realize that this generation is considered the problem by many, but I think that considering the stakes for them and their kids, they could be a huge part of the solution. Here's the email I got today:

Dear friends (Boomers and otherwise),

Here is a big question for you: Will Baby Boomers—some ofthe 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964—become a powerful force by reconnecting to the ideals of our youth? Could Boomers, desperate for moral and political vision, join forces in our society and say: "We are going to be a positive force for change as we age"? Of course, if you are reading this, you are probably already engaged, making positive contributions to change. But it will require banding together to leverage our power. Wouldn't it be inspiring if Boomers came full circle? If we used the strength of our enormous numbers, and our idealism? If we embraced the economic, environmental and social justice issues that will unite generations and help to create the better world that we so desperately need?

It Is Possible. It Is Necessary.

As a Boomer, I think it is possible. And given the direction in which our country is headed, it is a necessity!

We can see it as a generational responsibility for Boomers to play a strong, positive role in society, for our younger friends, colleagues and families, for our children and grandchildren, for everyone. It is vital that we develop a broader awareness, that we celebrate our roots and our history.

In fact, I think it is so important that we aspire to positive Boomer-consciousness that we at AlterNet are planning to establish a special Boomer Web site of thinkers, writers and participants—like you—to explore the exciting potential of a more liberated Baby Boomer generation, to jumpstart some creative Boomer thinking and discussions.

No one is really doing this. We can be ahead of the curve. But we need to do it together. I need you to participate, and I need your help. More about that in a moment.

An Antidote to Generational Conflict

It is easy to get the feeling that in some circles, like corporate media pundits, there is a conspiracy to blame Baby Boomers for economic fears about the future. Boomers are being scapegoated for being greedy and wanting more than our fair share at the expense of future generations.

As the blogger Karoli writes, "I am a Baby Boomer and lately that means I'm viewed as a piggy citizen who wants more than my fair share at the expense of...gasp!…my children. And my future grandchildren, of course."

That doesn't make too much sense, and in fact, it is a pack of lies.

But this is why Boomers have to be politically awake. The scapegoating pundits are the same forces that are spreading lies about Social Security and Medicare—and those are direct attacks on Boomers. But the generations that follow us will also suffer. That is why we need to stick together.

A Familiar Name: The Koch Brothers and a Pack of Lies

Our friends at Brave New Films recently documented how the right-wing echo chamber, funded lavishly by the Koch brothers, is at work to scapegoat Boomers with fear-mongering. Lies are generated and repeated countless times, often featuring the relentless repetition of two words: collapse and bankrupt.

The first lie is: "We must raise the retirement age, or the economy will collapse."

The second lie is: "Social security is bankrupt."

These two statements have been repeated thousands of times in and on American media. Yet there is not one scintilla of evidence that either one is accurate.

AlterNetters Are of All Generations

Of course, AlterNet readers are all ages, from teenagers to septuagenarians. And many of AlterNet's staff members are young people.

It is our common AlterNet experience that we want to make the world a better place by being well-informed and taking action, and enjoying life fully, while doing the right thing. This set of values crosses all generations. But a lot of AlterNet readers are Boomers. And I bet you have thought about this question: "How will I contribute as I get older?"

It is time to step up. That's why we are creating a "Boomer fund." It will help generate stories, ideas, cover inspirational examples, create discussions and debates, and generally raise the consciousness of America's huge Boomer cohort. It will help fight the battles to protect Medicare, Social Security and pensions, and come up with even better ideas for the future.

This Is a Startup

We are starting from scratch. This is something altogether new. All the money raised from this and future appeals will be used to work toward the goal of a progressive Boomer generation playing a positive role in the future of our society. Will you help? We are confident that we can raise enough startup money: $25,000 is a modest goal that will get us rolling. Then we will launch in September, after the summer, when we will all need to hit the ground running for the next stage to ensure a better future.

So please, think about this idea. If it makes sense to you, join us at the beginning. Break new ground with us and make a contribution.

And start thinking about what you want to share. In fact, if you don't want to wait, write us at Boomers@alternet.org and tell us what you think.

Sounds like something worth thinking about.


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