Social Justice and Senior Citizens

THE flaming demise of the catastrophic health-care act has drawn new attention to the political clout of America's senior citizens. The Medicare-extension law was enacted last year with overwhelming congressional support. But as seniors began to understand the costs of the benefits (which duplicated those provided by many private insurance plans), a prairie fire of successful grass-roots opposition swept through Congress. The episode also set off grumblings about ``greed'' among the country's older citizens. Critics say a minority of well-heeled seniors (who would have been hit hardest by the act's graduated surtax) did a disservice to their less affluent peers.

Accompanying these charges has been a spate of press reports about the relative comfort in which many seniors pass their days, thanks in large part to entitlement programs funded by younger generations. Many younger workers cannot expect to receive in their retirement years the generous transfer payments made possible by America's postwar prosperity.

Politicians, the media, and interest groups need to be restrained and compassionate in discussing this issue. Reckless claims and recriminations mustn't be allowed to touch off generational conflict. Still, it's time for America to rethink the respective responsibilities of different generations to each other and to the country's future. Some facts:

Americans' average life expectancy has climbed from 47 years in 1900 to 74 years today. This raises demand for government spending on seniors.

In 1940 those over 65 represented 7 percent of the US population; today they are 11 percent, and in 2020 may be 20 percent.

Thus, relatively fewer workers are funding Social Security. The burden on young workers will grow even heavier as the baby-boomers start to retire.

The typical retiree today receives Social Security payments worth 2.5 to 5 times the value of his contributions. Today's younger taxpayers are promised only about $1 back for each dollar they put into Social Security (the gap is even wider for Medicare).

For perhaps the first time in history, more young Americans live in poverty than elderly ones.

America must and will continue to support its senior citizens. For too many of them, old age still is - as it historically has been - a time of loneliness and want that society should help mitigate. Many others, though, are enjoying years of comfortable, subsidized leisure unique in history.

As Americans live longer, healthier lives, perhaps they should be expected to work longer before becoming eligible for retirement benefits. Perhaps Social Security and Medicare need to be subject to more stringent means-testing. Such ideas provoke strenuous resistance from many seniors, and politicians accordingly shy away. But these issues won't just go away.

It would be ironic if programs for the elderly deemed triumphs of social justice were to visit injustices on generations to come.

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