Talking to ourselves

Quick, without giving much thought to it, do you agree or disagree with this statement: We can no longer rely on Social Security or Medicare because they are in danger of imminent collapse.

Unless I miss my guess, a very healthy proportion of you, perhaps even a majority, agree with this. Do the math, after all: With 76 million boomers and programs supported at our current tax rates, the answer is a no-brainer. And if you need any further encouragement (or discouragement), listen to radio or TV commentators, who will tell you as much every week.

But wait a minute, what is this I see coming across my desk, also nearly every week—material contradicting the doom and gloom above, calling it “exaggerated” and “wildly misleading”? Items I've seen of this type just over the past couple of weeks: (1) an article by Barbara B. Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, writing in the tabloid Aging Today on how legislative moves toward “privatization” of paycheck withholdings are already hurting Social Security, worsening the federal deficit, and spreading unwarranted panic when Social Security—even if untouched—would fund the youngest of boomers well into their 80s before declining to 75% of benefits; (2) a steady stream of news nuggets in the newsletter Age Beat Online bewailing “one-sided” media presentations on the Social Security/Medicare “collapse,” including a recent PBS documentary sponsored by (ahem) Vanguard investment funds; (3) a recently published book called Aging Nation: The Economics and Politics of Growing Older in America by respected gerontologic scholars James H. Schulz and Robert H. Binstock decrying the scare talk of the “Merchants of Doom” who are busily selling investments or antigovernment rhetoric, adding that Social Security can be sustained without major intergenerational pain and Medicare saved by total health system reform. All of these writers emphasize the non-inevitability of our social programs’ demise and note that these programs can be kept healthy and generationally fair with the requisite political will.

Have you heard that side of the story much of late? Oh, wait—the sources I'm citing are a tabloid and a weekly newsletter published by the American Society on Aging, which focuses principally on policy scholars and journalists involved in aging issues, and a provocative book that hasn't been much discussed in the popular press. It seems as though those of us involved with geriatrics/long-term care policy discussions are talking to ourselves, perhaps even preaching to the choir. There's not much “equal time” being given to these views in any public forums I'm aware of.

Whichever set of claims or counterclaims I lean toward (and I'm still working on it), I will say this: As a journalist, it bothers me to see only one side of any story being aired. It's time we started paying 360-degree attention to these all-important issues. Doom and gloom is not appropriate, nor is the converse: many Americans’ airy conviction that society has all their long-term care needs covered. As things stand now, private citizens are increasingly on their own. But they needn't be.


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