Friday, December 15, 2017

Social Security, Medicare discussions can be divisive

Tony Martin isn't an aging Baby Boomer, nor a member of the Greatest Generation. But he and others like him should be the faces of the ongoing debate over long-term retirement security.

Martin is just 26. Trained as a paralegal, he can't find work as a mediator. So he is taking on-line classes toward a bachelor's degree in psychology. Retirement is a long way off to someone trying to begin their career. Still, two days ago, he attended his first-ever AARP gathering. Actually, he brought his mother, Julia, but stuck around for the town-hall-meeting that AARP dubbed a listening session on Social Security and Medicare.

There was nothing policy wonkish about it. No mention of diminished birth rates, longer life spans, actuarial tables, raising the retirement age or increasing the payroll tax. There was some momentary rhetoric about curbing waste, fraud and abuse and some agreed Congress should lift the $110,000 cap on earned income subject to withholding for Social Security.

But, the overwhelming opinion of the senior citizens in attendance could be summed up in just two words:

Hands off.

And then there was Martin.

"I personally don't think I'm ever going to see it,'' he said.

His sentiment is easy to understand. The meeting came just four days after administrators said the Social Security Trust Fund will be insolvent in 2033, three years earlier than previously projected. People who are 45 years old today can't draw full retirement benefits until the year after the trust fund hits insolvency. If no changes are made in the meantime, benefits will be cut 25 percent then. Worse, Medicare, the health insurance for the elderly, will be exhausted in 12 years.

AARP says its members feel under-represented, prompting plans for 200 town hall meetings to gather opinions and forward them to Washington. Forty-one people came to the Land O'Lakes Community Center Friday morning, but I suspect their collective thoughts would be echoed by tens of thousands of others. A third of Pasco County's population is 55 or older. The percentage is even higher in Hernando County where 72,000 people, or 43 percent of the residents, are at least 55.

(There are additional sessions scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Michael's Parish Hall, State Road 52, Hudson and on May 31 at the Knights of Columbus, Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill.)

In Land O'Lakes, the octogenarians indicated they are confident they will not out-live their benefits. The people in their 50s are not so sure. A majority believe, over the course of their lifetimes, they will receive more in benefits than they paid into the system.

Don't bother mentioning benefit cuts.

"We have enough poor people in this country and we have a lot of people living on the edge with Social Security,'' said Mary Ann Hile, 83. She feared any reductions will simply send more people into poverty. Indeed. AARP reports more than half of the 3.8 million recipients in Florida count on Social Security for at least half their income.

So what message would the group send to Congress and the White House about Social Security and Medicare?

Don't you dare take it away.

Don't tax Social Security benefits.

You should be able to get out of the system what you paid into it.

Repay the past borrowing, with interest, to help with the solvency.

You want to improve Medicare? Make it the only health insurance offered to members of Congress, suggested Alan Birkett, 63, a retired respiratory therapist from Wesley Chapel. "Then we'll have quality.''

Many spoke about their own personal situations: The loss of employer-financed health insurance; pension cuts; the cost of medical treatments; and the reliance on Social Security after their 401(k) plans tanked. Some said they were confident the benevolence of the U.S. citizenry would ensure the longevity of the retirement programs.

But, not everyone.

One 67-year-old woman stated at the outset that she worried Medicare and Social Security won't be around to help her children and grandchildren.

It was Tony Martin's mother.

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