Policy and seniors

WASHINGTON is increasingly concerned with the financial and social needs of one of the most rapidly growing segments of the overall American population - senior citizens.

Such an examination - in large measure taking place because of the presidential election campaign - should be welcomed by all Americans.

What is crucial is that the issue of seniors be kept in proper perspective, rather than subjected to more of the mythmaking and misinformation that have too often characterized the discussion of older Americans - and unfortunately influenced public attitudes about seniors in general.

Moreover, given the changing demographics of the United States - with the population gradually ''aging'' - it is now clear that the public will have to anticipate dealing more directly with the structure and benefit levels of federal and state programs specifically designed for seniors.

That this issue should suddenly be coming to the forefront of the nation's financial and legislative agenda is hardly surprising in this presidential election year. Some 48 million Americans - 21 percent of the population - are now 55 and older. Because many are now working longer than ever, and also thanks to pensions and such federal transfer programs as social security, seniors now have a total annual income of around $416 billion - double the total spending power of people under age 35.

And most crucial - they tend to go to the polls and vote, a fact not lost on political candidates.

The current political discussion about senior citizens needs to take account of four basic propositions:

* As a group, older Americans tend to be slightly less vulnerable to major economic disruptions (especially high inflation) than younger Americans. Their after-tax (disposable) income is actually higher than that for Americans as a whole.

* Fewer seniors find themselves in poverty. In 1959, for example, almost 27 percent of seniors were below the poverty line. By the late 1970s, the number was below 8 percent, although that number may have begun to rise during the recent recession.

But there is another side to the issue that can't be overlooked. Those seniors who do find themselves in poverty often face more challenging problems than do younger Americans - particularly seniors who are members of minority groups, or who are without a large family or other support system to aid them. Surely, no senior citizen should be allowed to live in a condition of poverty without appropriate government help.

* Seniors are far more active and healthy than is generally perceived or is portrayed in films and on television. One example: only 5 percent or less of seniors 65 or older live in institutions. Almost all seniors age 65 or older live in households.

But again, there is a key qualification. Many seniors find it difficult to obtain smaller housing after they have raised families, or after retirement. Millions of units of affordable, more appropriate, housing (including rental units ) are vitally needed throughout the US.

* Most important, the nation will have to come to grips with the whole question of entitlement programs.

Indeed, the debate about the extent of entitlements is now starting to appear even among lawmakers and liberal economists - who over the years have been the major backers of federal support programs in general. Former congressional budget director Alice M. Rivlin, for example, has now offered proposals to reduce the federal budget deficits that would directly touch on entitlements. Among her recommendations: Recipients of social security, civil service pensions , and other entitlement benefits would have to forgo cost-of-living adjustments for at least one year. And she would keep medicare reimbursement rates constant for at least a year. Such outlays, she notes, have been increasing at an annual rate of around 18 percent since 1970.

She would also impose a one-year freeze on spending for nonmilitary discretionary programs like transportation (which could affect seniors), and education.

In short, Americans need better information about the status of its senior citizens.

And surely, if entitlement programs geared to the elderly are to be reformed, then it must be clear that such a restructuring is part of a larger budget restructuring that shares adjustments fairly among all elements of society.

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