Now that the stimulus bill is up for grabs in the Senate, perhaps it's time for AARP to seek a deal with the government on behalf of the nation's older citizens. Here's the pitch:
There is near-universal agreement that senior entitlements--Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--must be scaled back. None of them have enough money to meet their future obligations. In business, when you're paying out more money than you take in and you have no prospects of making money in the future, it's called bankruptcy. In our look-the-other-way government accounting, it's called an unfunded obligation. Whatever name you give it, the Entitlement Blob is huge. It dwarfs the federal budget and is roughly six or seven times our total national debt. And, like its namesake, it's growing uncontrollably.
We must reduce these entitlements. The impact won't be pleasant, especially in the wake of a stock-market meltdown that has obliterated the retirement plans of millions. We're talking about raising the eligibility trigger ages and maybe reducing payment levels. The full-retirement age needs to be raised to reflect new financial and longevity realities. Health-care benefits must be reined in as well. That's bitter stuff to swallow, and it explains Social Security's reputation as the electrified third rail of politics. Touch it and you're toast. Yet touch it we must.
So the question is: If we were to designate AARP as our lobbyist, what could it possibly seek from Uncle Sam that would make up for those entitlement reductions? How about the reinvention of our communities to fit the needs of an aging population? That's an infrastructure program even more important than repairing bridges, sewers and roads. By spending billions of dollars to stimulate the economy today, we will improve the way society supports our parents and grandparents tomorrow. Let's call it the Sustainability for Seniors Act (think of it as the new SSA).
In a recent opinion article, two academics at San Diego State University dusted off the findings of the 2005 White House Conference on Aging and came to what seems to be an obvious conclusion:
“While many experts, popular pundits and the press have made predictions about how the aging of the baby boomers will affect the United States, in actuality, no one really knows with any certainty what will happen. What is clear is that the policy implications and ramifications are unprecedented in history. But one thing seems clear to all: communities are not prepared for an aging population, especially in the areas of transportation, housing, land-use planning, public safety, parks and recreation, work force development and volunteerism/civic engagement.”
Our SSA would balance each dollar in reduced entitlement benefits with better mass-transit systems, so older folks can get rid of their cars and travel safety and promptly in their communities. It would provide guidelines and subsidies that foster senior-friendly communities (think Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, on steroids), with safer and more accessible public spaces. And it would expand training and job-placement programs that help older people continue working (which many of us really wanted to do even before Wall Street broke our nest eggs).
The need for such improvements is becoming clearer with each day's growth of our older population. Spending public funds can improve the quality of life for millions of our older citizens. Such a program, properly designed and communicated, would balance the reductions in entitlements that simply must happen to put our economy on a more solid, sustainable basis. Seniors need not feel victimized. The housing, transportation, and energy sectors would be major beneficiaries of our Sustainability for Seniors Act, thus reinforcing the goals already set forth by President Obama and his new team.
Sensible needs. A noble cause. Sign me up.