Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
Gutting Medicare and Social Security would make looking forward to retirement much more frightening for millions of working class Americans. That seems a simple statement that anyone could understand. Yet, I don't hear or see a public outcry against the sorts of changes that everyone with any power in American political circles, Republicans and Democrats, takes for granted. I wrote last week that I was offended that politicians imply since I am older than 55, I shouldn't worry about proposed changes as they wouldn't take effect for me. But I'm pretty sure that we’re not being told the full story about what kinds of cuts are likely to benefits that will make it harder for all of us.
I feel as though the train is coming straight at me and I have no power to get off the tracks. Though I keep waiting for someone to say there will be no diminishment of Social Security benefits nor will there be any weakening of the Medicare program, no one utters those words. The reason no one says those words is because no one is holding the line for these two critical programs.
Wouldn't it be great if someone actually said we've reached the point where we understand how difficult it is for people of retirement age to live decently on Social Security benefits alone and that the Medicare program needs to be strengthened in order to make sure our elderly and disabled have access to needed healthcare without financial barrier? The reality is that it is very difficult to survive on just Social Security benefits and that even the current Medicare program has gaps that leave seniors struggling for needed care and medicines.
It doesn't really matter to me who won which debate during the current presidential election cycle. I listen as much for what the candidates don't say as for what they do say. And I’ve yet to hear one of them say that the Social Security and Medicare promised to me and promised to my children who are now reaching their 30s and early 40s will be strong enough to meet our needs in retirement years. Never before have these promises been so important as private pension funds and other savings for retirement quickly fall away for many working class Americans.
So many people like me have nothing left in savings to fall back on. So many of us have little or no retirement security outside of what we believed could never be taken away from Social Security and Medicare. No matter which calamity we faced --stagflation in the 70s, loss of jobs and recession in the 80s, rising and staggering healthcare costs in the 90s that continue even now as the current deep recession with so much job loss forces families like mine to use every last dime to stay afloat. No matter what else, we always knew Social Security and Medicare would be there.
Our current elected leaders in both parties seem ignorant about the financial realities for working class America. When I turned 15 years old, my father told me it was time for me to get a real job. I had always done babysitting and other side jobs in my neighborhood to earn my own spending money after I was 12, but at 15 with work permit in hand as evidence that my school believed I was a good enough student to also handle working, I found my first job working behind the counter at a local dry cleaners. I was so excited when I saw my first paycheck. My Republican dad sat down with me and went over the stub, including the numbers that showed my payments for Social Security and Medicare taxes. It didn't make me angry that I paid those taxes. I knew as he explained to me it was a way for me and for everyone who worked and got a paycheck to know we'd be cared for as we got older. It was a social contract. It wasn't just that I wanted to make sure that my father was able to retire without worry or that I thought I wouldn't have to save. It was a welcome relief to know we all shared responsibility to one another.
If as a part of a seriously misguided effort to pin the blame for poor fiscal management on these critical social safety net programs our elected officials continue to plan on cutting Social Security and Medicare, every one of us who has worked, who is working, who knows or loves someone who is working, or cares about the honesty and integrity implicit in our social contracts needs to rise up and demand a different kind of change. We need to reevaluate the strength of these programs and how well they are protecting today's seniors and today’s disabled people against the ravages of an economy and society so steeped in greed and profit taking. The fiscal commissions we need are those that would make life better for millions of people not make life harder for generations to come. Not coincidentally, making Social Security stronger would also make our economy stronger and help lower deficits as more revenue streamed in from folks using benefits for everyday living expenses and taxes paid on those purchases were collected.
In this excellent piece by Rose Ann DeMoro, Social Security’s future is in our hands, not in the hands of a handful of selfish politicians who wave some flag of deficit-cutting morality as yet another scare tactic.
Medicare for all for life would save billions of dollars and allow every American access to a single standard of high quality healthcare. Social Security made stronger, with benefits that allowed a livable standard of living for benefit recipients, should be our goal. Anything short of strengthening these two programs is simply wrong. Wouldn't it be wonderful to hear our elected officials debate whose program made the most positive impact for our seniors, our disabled, and our communities? How different would that conversation be?
Every American ought to be listening to the dialogue right now not just with terror about the serious damage that is clearly coming down the pike for Social Security and Medicare no matter which party is in power but also with one steady demand. Keep your promise. Keep the contract that was made with so many young people when they saw their first paychecks. This was no entitlement but an earned benefit that we paid for with our labor. Make sure Social Security and Medicare continue as the contractual bond from generation to generation as our commitment to human decency and the common good.
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