Time To Retire The Greedy Geezers Myth

Terrance Heath

By now you’ve probably heard about the new supplemental poverty measure produced by the Census Bureau, which says 49.1 million Americans are living in poverty, compared to 46.2 million under the official measure. But did you know that the supplemental measure blows a big hole through the right’s favorite “greedy geezer” talking point?

Coming as it does on the heels of a Pew Research Foundation report on wealth gap between younger and older Americans — which is already being spun by the right as “proof” that we “spend too much” on grandma, at the kids’ expense — the new supplemental poverty measure is a reminder that what we’re spending is what’s keeping grandma, and a whole lot of kids, out of poverty.

The supplemental poverty measure actually shows a higher rate of poverty among Americans 65 and older than the official measure. In fact, under the new supplemental poverty measure, older Americans sustained the largest increase in poverty — nearly doubling from the official measure, to 15.9 percent.

The reason is because the supplemental measure takes into consideration the impact of various forms of government aid to the elderly and low-income households, as well as realities that the official measure doesn’t. (Like the fact that the price of food has increased sevenfold since 1963, when the official poverty thresholds were established, or that the cost of living is higher some places than others.) In the case of seniors, the official measure doesn’t take into consideration rising Medicare premiums, increasing deductibles, and expenses for prescription drugs.

The supplemental poverty measure makes clear what we already knew: that “what we spend” on various forms of government aid keeps millions of people out of poverty.

There were 49 million poor people in 2010 — a national poverty rate of 16%, according to the supplemental Census data. In 2009 there were about 46 million in poverty, a rate of 15.3%.

The situation would have been worse without government aid, according to Census data for 2010. Without the earned income tax credit, the poverty rate would have been 18%. Without food stamps, the rate would have stood at 17.7%

The new Census report supplements previously released official data by offering a more nuanced view of the country’s poor, including a clearer look at families’ economic reality, and details the role of government and household spending. For 2010, the official measure estimated a poverty rate of 15.2%. Unlike the official measure, the supplemental analysis accounts for factors such as receiving food stamps and paying for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

“Comparing the two measures sheds light on the effects of in-kind benefits, taxes, and other nondiscretionary expenses on measured economic well-being,” according to the Census Bureau.

For example, Social Security keeps some 20 million Americans out of poverty, young and old. In fact, the supplemental poverty measure — compared to the official measure — shows that the poverty rate for children has gone down, while poverty among seniors has gone way up. So why does the new supplemental poverty measure, flip the stats on poverty among children and seniors, even after factoring in Social Security benefits? Three words: heath care costs.

The reason is that children receive government benefits, while medical costs are pushing low-income seniors living on fixed incomes over the brink, said Kathleen S. Short, a U.S. Census Bureau economist.Medical costs helped draw Ernest Lee to a Monterey Park food bank over the weekend.

Lee, 78, a retired real estate broker, and his wife own their home. They augment his Social Security benefits and her wages as a factory assembler by borrowing against the home’s value, he said.

But their estimated $400 to $500 monthly bill for his diabetes and high-blood pressure medications, as well as co-payments for doctor visits and treatment, have pushed the couple’s finances into the red, Lee said. He said he also struggles to pay taxes and insurance on his home.

Like I said, it blows a big hole through the “greedy geezer” talking point. Not that it wasn’t full of holes already. Even before the supplemental poverty measure we knew that:

We know that the very types of government aid the supplemental poverty measure takes into consideration are what’s keeping millions of Americans just this side of poverty. Now we know that more older Americans are slipping into poverty, because things like out-of-pocket medical expenses eat away at their benefits. 

And despite the 1 percenters’ attempts to create a false Social Security “crisis” and turn “class warfare” into generational warfare, we know that the programs keeping people out of poverty are the very ones under attack by conservatives.

The problem with how the census has historically defined poverty is well-known, and certainly overdue for clarification. For the most part, the New York Times does a good job of providing nuance to a complicated subject. However, while reaching for the larger picture, the Times totally drops the ball.

Coming amid soaring need and bitter debt debates, the findings in Monday’s release are likely to offer fodder both to defenders of safety-net programs and fiscal conservatives who say the government already does much to temper hardship and needs to do no more.

The idea that conservatives are attempting to hold the line against doing more to ameliorate poverty completely misunderstands what is actually going on. Conservatives want the government to do less. Specifically, they want to cut or eradicate exactly those government programs that are keeping millions of Americans out of devastating hardship.

It’s not “grandma vs. junior” anymore. It never was. It’s the 1% vs. the 99%. It always has been. Just ask the 1,000 seniors who joined the Occupy protest in Chicago.

More than 1,000 senior citizens and their supporters marched from Chicago’s Federal Plaza to the intersection of Jackson and Clark Street Monday morning to protest proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). At the intersection, more than 40 protesters, 15 of them seniors affiliated with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, stood or sat in the street, arms linked, blocking traffic.

Amid chants demanding that the cuts be forestalled — with suggestions for alternatives, including tax hikes — 43 demonstrators were escorted from the intersection (see video, above) by police and issued citations for pedestrian failure to “exercise due care,” or for blocking traffic. Those cited included four protesters using assisted mobility devices and at least one centenarian.

…Before the traffic-stopping demonstration, an estimated 1,500 people turned out for a rally at Federal Plaza, where community members and activists spelled out the damage that individuals, and the greater Chicago community, stand to bear if funding is cut from welfare programs that benefit seniors. After decades of payments into social security with the expectation of returns, Chicago’s senior citizens expressed shock that the federal support they rely on could be reduced.

“We paid into these programs,” Patricia Kerz, pictured below, said. “We don’t want them tinkering with our investments.”

Retirement may not be an option for many seniors in this recession, but it’s time — way past time — to retire the “greedy geezers” myth.

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