By Sondra Shapiro
Will Social Security and Medicare be there for me when I retire? If you ask my accountant and my insurance broker, they would answer “no.” Two educated, intelligent professionals seriously believe our nation’s entitlement system is headed toward extinction — a belief shared by much of the baby boomer generation.
The truth is, while Social Security and Medicare are facing problems — the Medicare fund that pays hospital bills will run out of money in 2017 and the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2037 — small fixes would put both programs back on track, without taxing federal coffers.
According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll two out of three Americans questioned (67 percent) believe Social Security and Medicare costs are already creating a crisis for the federal government (34 percent) or will do so within 10 years (33 percent); only 7 percent believing the programs’ costs will not create a crisis for the foreseeable future.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security make up a huge portion of the federal budget. So to reduce the deficit, Congress must address the costs of these programs.
Though Americans are aware of the financial crisis this country faces, there’s little support for a drastic overhaul or major changes to Medicare. According to another USA Today/Gallup poll, 27 percent believe government should not try to control Medicare costs and 34 percent support minor changes.
Such conflicted views among Americans highlight the challenges our government faces in addressing the costs of entitlements in a politically palatable way. The task is hefty but not impossible with the help of well thought out input from average Americans.
Here lies the opportunity for my generation to make sure that whatever Congress does to curb the deficit, Medicare and Social Security will not only survive, but will remain in forms we can count on as safety nets.
The 2010 U.S. Census has released data showing that for the first time, Americans 45 and older make up a majority of the voting-age population. There are about 119 million people 45 and older who make up 51 percent of the voting-age population, with Americans 55 and older representing a large bulk of that group.
Based on actual election turnout, which is higher among older Americans, census data show that individuals 45 and older represent about 60 percent of voters in national races, judging by the 2008 presidential race. Nearly one out of two voters is 50 or older, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.
“Boomers have now crossed the line between thinking about Medicare and Social Security as an issue for their parents, to being worried about it for themselves,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution who did a broad analysis of available census data. “More so than their parents, boomers face increasing costs of medical care and the risk that government pensions will need to substitute for downturns in their 401(k) plans.”
Frey told the AP that the viability of Medicare should be the number one priority for politicians seeking office, especially in aging regions. Massachusetts is one of 28 states that has had a decline in the under 45-age group.
Considering the impressive edge we boomers have in the electoral process, our lawmakers should take us seriously. “Given the current fiscal concerns, it’s going to be a test case whether Republicans or Democrats can talk about entitlement reform without getting killed,” said Mark Braden, a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee who now advises elected officials and state legislatures.
This boomer was particularly disturbed by the recent actions by the Republican-controlled House when it considered a plan that would decimate Medicare as we know it by offering a voucher-like system to purchase private health insurance that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would ultimately shift costs to retirees by at least an extra $6,000 annually by 2021.
Though the measure would affect only those younger than 55, the implications for Medicare’s future don’t bode well for any American. The most vocal outcry over this proposal came from much older Americans who are worried about cuts that will hurt their children and grandchildren.
When it comes to Medicare and Social Security, older Americans have stronger feelings about keeping programs fully intact than 30-year-olds who aren’t thinking about retirement or who aren’t very familiar with the programs, according to David Certner, AARP legislative policy director. AARP just unveiled a multi-million dollar ad campaign and is leading grass-root activism to fight proposals that it believes would result in harmful cuts to “critical” Social Security and Medicare benefits for today’s and future retirees.
“Imposing arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts … will also add to the financial burden that Americans are already shouldering for their health and financial security,” said Deborah Banda, state director of AARP Massachusetts.
The AARP national television spot says: “You’ve worked hard your entire life. Paid your dues. Raised a family. You’ve earned a little peace of mind. Now, some in Congress want to make harmful cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Cutting your benefits so Washington can pay its bills. AARP believes the country can do better. We can cut wasteful spending without cutting the benefits you’ve earned. Join us. Tell Congress to stop the harmful cuts to Medicare and Social Security.”
In truth, there is no need for anyone of my generation to sit back and be spoon fed policy that could adversely affect retirement security. There is power to influence among our 78 million strong.
Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more at fiftyplusadvocate.com.