All over America, including Chillicothe, Ohio, citizens are rallying to save Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from unnecessary cuts that will hurt millions of ordinary people. The fear is that these vital programs will be scapegoated in Washington as the politicians grapple with a national debt caused by past tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Social Security has been with us for 76 years, created by President Roosevelt and the Congress in 1935. It saves millions of people from starvation and homelessness—people used to literally go to the poorhouse when they got too old to work. We pay into the system when we work, and when we reach retirement age we can draw a pension—which we’re “entitled” to because we invested in it. It’s not charity or welfare. It’s an earned pension, which averages about $1200 a month.
Social Security does not add anything to the deficit. Experts agree it will be able to pay out all required benefits for at least several decades. It has already been “fixed,” in 1983, when the retirement age was upped from 65 to 67 and public workers had their earned Social Security benefits cut in half because they also earned benefits from public retirement. Those who want to raise the retirement age to 70 are probably thinking of the easier “work” of politicians or pundits, not truck drivers, nurses, or airline pilots.
So what’s the problem? Why would politicians want to cut benefits, raise the retirement age, or kill it altogether, to be replaced by a system of gambling our pension money in the stock market? Whenever you face a political puzzle like this, it’s always good to follow the money. In this case, it leads back to the bankers and investors, and those politicians who represent them in Congress. They want to cut back or end the program so that we’d all have to buy more of their risky stock deals. In fairness, some of them probably believe their own rhetoric, but that doesn’t make their cuts and privatization ideas more fair or helpful to working people.
Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965 by President Johnson and the Congress as a way to provide health care and nursing home funding for retired people. In addition, Medicaid provides modest benefits to some low income families. Employees pay into the Medicare fund, and then receive health care benefits after age 65.
The problem? Even though Medicare and Medicaid are efficient, their costs are going up because health care costs generally are going up, for a variety of reasons. Part of the problem is the Medicare drug plan, part D, set up in 2003 by President Bush and the Congress, which prohibits Medicare from negotiating discounts from the drug companies. Also, we’re an aging population finding more ways to treat or cure illnesses we previously couldn’t. But that’s expensive. Twice as expensive in the U.S. as in Europe and Canada. Our private insurance system, with all the advertising, huge executive salaries, profit, and mountains of paperwork is very wasteful.
The Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—can lower costs by getting more people paying into the system, getting folks to doctors instead of emergency rooms, and by providing preventive benefits such as annual check ups. It also cuts costs by reducing waste and fraud in the system. But the Act doesn’t fully kick in until 2014, and Congress has to make a decision about taxes and budgeting by the end of this year, or across-the-board increases in taxes, and mandatory cuts, will occur in a misguided effort to reduce our national debt.
The debt can be reduced by growing the economy and raising taxes on the wealthy, back to where they were in the Clinton years, producing considerable revenue. And, we can cut costs in the military, now that the Iraq war is over and Afghanistan is winding down.
This is what we voted for in November, and hopefully the Congress will enact the will of the people. Cutting old age pensions and reducing health care coverage are not humane answers to our fiscal problems. Citizens are demanding to be heard.
Jack Burgess is a retired teacher and native of southern Ohio. He served on the Ohio Governor’s Commission on Healthcare Cost Containment.