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Let's not break our social contract

I turn 50 years old next month, which I think of as a great age. You have the wisdom to know what is really important in life with enough youth left to enjoy it.

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But it turns out that 50 years old is a very bad age to be right now. As Republicans in Congress set their sights on dismantling the safety net programs of old age, they would protect anyone 55 or over. Fifty is in that tragic nether region. It's not old enough to be within the Republican cut-off for traditional Medicare, but it's too old to have much chance of making up for the reduced benefits.

I have spent my entire working life thinking that I had a solid foundation of government protection in old age, but it turns out that those promises exist only as long as Democrats are in power. The House Republican budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 makes a clear choice by turning Medicare into a voucher program when those currently under 55 reach 65. Republicans would sacrifice the safety net features of Medicare to further cut taxes on the wealthy. And they are chomping at the bit to make similar cuts to Social Security. Only the stock market's near-crash has temporarily back-pocketed their privatization goals.

If Medicare becomes a voucher program, everyone intuitively knows what will happen. Over time, as the voucher's value fails to keep up with health care inflation, it will buy less and less medical insurance coverage. Seniors will be forced to fork over more out-of-pocket with each passing year, leaving some without the financial wherewithal to access basic care.

Americans who are 55 to 64 don't have to worry about this bleak future. And maybe by the time their children are facing their retirement years the country will have reconsidered. It shouldn't take that many years of elderly Americans driven into destitution due to lack of decent health insurance coverage before demands for a return to government-run Medicare emerge. But I expect 50-year-olds like me will be part of that group who will be left to sink or swim on our own. We'll be the cautionary tale that younger generations point to as the failed social experiment in Republican ideas.

Behind this penchant for unraveling New Deal and Great Society programs is the big lie that Republicans seem to take as received wisdom: If people would just work hard and save for a rainy day they wouldn't need a government safety net in old age.

President Barack Obama responded to such claims Wednesday. "We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us," Obama said, affirming that our nation's greatness is tied up in the programs that compassionately buffer all of us when calamity strikes.

The debate reminds me of one that happened more than 70 years ago when Robert Jackson, the future Supreme Court justice and Nuremberg prosecutor who was then assistant attorney general, argued forcefully before the U.S. Supreme Court that the recently passed Social Security Act was constitutional. He said Congress was fulfilling its duty to advance the general welfare by protecting people from one of capitalism's great flaws that was laid bare by the Great Depression. People who assiduously saved had those savings wiped out by failing banks, and people who lost their homes did so due to the economic conditions, not a lack of thrift or industriousness.

"(Congress) came to the conclusion," Jackson declared, "that poverty in age is no longer a moral judgment against the individual; that if the time has been in our economy when we could say that it was only indolence and prodigality that led one to the poorhouse, that time was no longer."

Republicans think that, at 50 years old, I can prepare for a dramatically reduced Medicare program, and if I can't, then there's something wrong with me. They think everyone should pull themselves up by their hospital gown straps or die trying.

Let's not break our social contract 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 5:30am]
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