politicians should stop pandering to seniors
By James P. Gannon; Oct. 4, 2004: USA Today
In July, I crossed that golden-age threshold into senior citizenship, receiving a Medicare card, a Medigap insurance policy from AARP and my new status as a member of America's most pampered class and most feared voter group.
Turning age 65 is like joining a club. There are special privileges, exclusive benefits, endless promises and a whole class of fawning, eager-to-please attendants who bow and scrape and ask what more they can do to make us happy. This last group is known as politicians.
I have been watching presidential elections as a journalist for more than 40 years, but this is the first election I'll watch as a senior citizen, and my reaction is that it just about makes me sick. At a time when America's young soldiers are dying in Iraq, young children are attending underperforming schools, and many young families are struggling to make ends meet, our politicians act as though we older people are the neediest class and the highest priority of the government.
John Kerry and President Bush run from one campaign event to another, dueling verbally over who can promise the most to senior voters. Kerry expresses outrage at the Bush administration's announcement last month of a 17.5% increase in Medicare insurance premiums for 2005.
He says Bush "is driving our seniors right out of the middle class" and "socking seniors with the largest Medicare hike in history."
The Bush campaign retorts that Kerry opposed the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors and that the Massachusetts senator voted to require higher Medicare insurance premiums before he turned against them.
Pouring it on — for years
This campaign rhetoric overlooks the fact that senior citizens have been treated as America's most-cared-for age group for the past three decades. We are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the federal budget, squeezing resources available to other needy groups that lack our political clout.
Since the passage of the Medicare health insurance program in 1965, the economic lot of the elderly has vastly improved. The same cannot be said for children. Fewer and fewer old people are poor, thanks largely to Medicare, increases in Social Security and other programs for the aged. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 10.2% of Americans older than 65 had incomes below the poverty line in 2003; that's down from 28.5% in 1966. But the poverty rate among children of all races was 17.6% in 2003, slightly more than it was in 1966. There are nearly four times as many poor children in the nation as there are poor seniors.
So why don't we see Bush and Kerry running from one day-care center to another promising more programs for kids? Because kids don't vote, and too often, neither do their low-income parents. And kids don't have a good lobbying force in Washington. We seniors do vote (two-thirds of us turned out in 2000), and we have the AARP and an army of briefcase-toting suits in Washington to argue our pressing needs. The fact that seniors dominate the key swing state of Florida, which both sides see as crucial to victory, only adds to our clout.
Last year, in a pre-emptive strike to win the senior vote in 2004, Bush pushed Congress to pass the most massive increase in Medicare spending since Lyndon Johnson launched the program. This prescription-drug benefit is projected to cost $564 billion over 10 years. Contrast this $56 billion annual handout to seniors with what the federal government spends on all veterans' benefits ($28.5 billion), or aid to low-income schools ($13.3 billion), or nutrition programs for poor single mothers with young kids ($4.8 billion), and you see how coddled we old folks really are.
The Democrats, who would have hailed this drug benefit under President Clinton, were appalled at the idea of Bush hijacking the Medicare issue, so they trashed the program as cheap and inadequate. They managed to convince many seniors that they deserved much more, and polls show that the drug benefit is widely unpopular. Thus, the biggest handout to old folks since LBJ has become as appealing as a $49 suit or a $2 bottle of wine.
Plenty to be thankful for
I suppose I should be outraged by the planned increase in Medicare premiums, but to me, Medicare seems like a bargain. The $78.20 monthly premium my wife and I each will pay still leaves us with health insurance that costs less than half what I paid under an employer-supported plan in effect until I turned 65. The $11.60 monthly increase equals what it costs us to eat at McDonald's, and guess how much we'll miss that?
All this should leave seniors thankful and appreciative, but politicians keep telling us that nothing is too good for us, and too many seniors act as though nothing will satisfy us. Frankly, I don't want to join the "greedy geezer" class. And I don't think most seniors are really so selfish that they want to steal resources from their children and grandchildren to protect themselves from paying any of the rising costs of growing old.
In this election, I am more concerned about those soldiers in Iraq, kids in failing schools and the threat that terrorists are going to strike our cities. The world that my six kids and 10 grandkids are going to live in is far more important to me than the golden-age goodies promised by pandering politicians.
James P. Gannon, a retired journalist, is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the former editor of The Des Moines Register.