Retirees waiting for Reagan elederly policy to take shape

President Carter's counselor on aging, Harold Sheppard, calls for "doing much more for the 60-plus [age] group" and worreis that his programs -- along with his office -- will be phased out under Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Sheppard warns that "the rhetoric of the Reagan campaign leads us to believe that there will be all sorts of budget cutting," with serious impacts on services to the elderly, including long-term care.He points out that this prospect coincides with a dramatic increase in the 80-plus age group in particular.

Over the past decade, the 80-plus group has jumped from 6.3 million to more than 10 million, according to social security figures. The issue is complicated , says Sheppard, because the children of this group are themselves retired. The result is that two large and rapidly expanding generations, rather than just one , are drawing on social security and pension programs.

To ease the burden, Sheppard wants "more thinking put into employment for the young-old, the 60-69 age group, rather than having them forced into premature retirement." He feels one problem is that early retirement has become a "cultural norm," considered a sign of social progress. He would like to change this view by encouraging people to stay in the labor force longer.

The challenge, Sheppard says, is to "make sure that we have a productive labor force and a large enough labor force to support programs which guarantee a humane quality of life for the very old."

Reagan transition team spokesman Larry Speakes states that "the problems of the elderly are certanly being given high priority" within the new administration, though no announcements have been made on specific policies or on whether the White House post of counselor on agng will continue.

Reagan staff members point out that the President-elect pledged full support for the social security system during the campaign. They expect he also will help senior citizens in the way he did as governor of California -- by providing special tax benefits. Aide Mary Catherine English adds that Reagan sees inflation as the most serious burden on the elderly -- so overall economic measures to reduce inflation will directly benefit senior citizens.

Another Reagan campaign promise is to tackle the problems surrounding retirement.

Economist Shirley H. Rhine of New York's nonprofit Conference Board is also concerned with retirement, warning that retirement at 65 may become a luxury which society can no longer afford.

Mrs. Rhine points to Census Bureau projections which indicate that within the next 50 years, 24 percent of the US population will be 60 or older. This is double for the figure for 1950 and a sharp climb from the present 16 percent. Her conclusion in a recent Conference Board study is that research is urgently needed to consider this shift.

Already the high proportion of 60-plus citizens is putting strains on the US economy -- as shown by the social security tax increaes in January which are expected to cancel out the first round of Reagan's promised individual tax cuts. "Such periodic [social security tax] increases will be necessary for the next several decades," says Rhine, "unless the age for qualifying to receive social security benefits is raised, benefits are cut, or some of the costs are taken out of general revenue."

The hard economic fact, Rhine explains, is that each year a proportionately smaller working population is having to support a greater number of retired workers. She points out that retirement and health care programs for older people already account for 38 percent of the federal budget.

One reason for an early response to the trend, says Rhine, is that as the number of retired workers grows, so does their political clout. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to trim any benefits provided in the past.

Rhine sees the new practice of union bargaining for retired workers as another complicating factor in dealing with retirement issues.

The answer, according to Rhine, is to develop long-term solutions now, rather than reacting to a crisis later.

With a long-term approach, the Conference Board study concludes: "A quarter of a century from now, older people will not only constitute a greater proportion of the population, they will also be better educated, better off economically, more sophisticated, and will wield more political power than their present-day counterparts. . . ."

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