Jul
29
2011

Robert Samuelson: We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Old

When your column is headlined "It's the Elderly, Stupid," I guess readers should know what to expect. Robert Samuelson delivers in today's Washington Post (a column that will appear elsewhere around the country, unfortunately), in a nasty diatribe about the kind of debt debate he thinks the country should be having–one that blames older people:

Older Americans do not intend to ruin America, but as a group, that's what they're about. On average, the federal government supports each American 65 and over by about $26,000 a year (about $14,000 through Social Security, $12,000 through Medicare). At 65, the average American will live almost 20 more years. Should these sizable annual subsidies begin later and be less for some? It's hard to discuss the budget realistically if you ignore most of what the budget does.

The Social Security money they're stealing is theirs, of course–taken out of their paychecks over their entire working lives. What Samuelson is proposing–if he really wants to discuss the budget realistically–is that they should get less of their money back in order to maintain tax cuts for the rich.

Medicare is different, in large part because healthcare costs really have increased dramatically. That's someone's fault–apparently old people's.

Samuelson goes on to writes about the "contradiction" between people's desire to do something about deficits and their belief that Social Security and Medicare shouldn't be cut. Which isn't a contradiction at all; people support reducing spending in other areas, like the military, and raising revenues via tax hikes on the wealthy. But here's his case:

What sustains these contradictions is a mythology holding that, once people hit 65, most become poor. This justifies political dogma among Democrats that resists Social Security or Medicare cuts of even one dollar.

But the premise is wrong. True, some elderly live hand-to-mouth; many more are comfortable, and some are wealthy. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports the following for Medicare beneficiaries in 2010: 25 percent had savings and retirement accounts averaging $207,000 or more; among homeowners (four-fifths of those 65 and older), three-quarters had equity in their houses averaging $132,000; about 25 percent had incomes exceeding $47,000 (that's for individuals, and couples would be higher).

So to say "most" old people are poor is wrong–and to prove that, he shows that some older people aren't poor at all.

Go to the Kaiser report he's citing, and you get a very different impression.

From the key findings:

–Half of all Medicare beneficiaries had incomes below $22,000 in 2010; less than 1 percent had incomes over $250,000.

–Half of all Medicare beneficiaries have less than $2,100 in retirement account savings (such as IRAs), and half of all Medicare beneficiaries have less than $31,000 in other financial assets (such as savings accounts)

But why focus on the average Medicare recipient when you can isolate the wealthiest and decry all seniors for their plan to "ruin America"? What Samuelson is saying that "we need to recognize that federal retiree programs often represent middle-class welfare." What he actually seems to be saying is that there is inequality–rich people are getting richer. There are ways to redistribute that wealth in order to pay for everyone's healthcare. But something tells me that's not what he's advocating.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.