When the Going Gets Tough, Seniors Must Get Voting

With Social Security and Medicare facing harsh threats from various politicians, retirees must keep a close eye on the 2012 elections.

The recently-deadlocked super committee was the latest in a line of blue-ribbon panels -- preceded by Domenici-Rivlin and Simpson-Bowles -- that have debated, and in two instances recommended, drastic cuts in Social Security and Medicare, landmark programs that have helped generations of seniors stay healthy and out of poverty.

These threats to retirement security will continue unless two pillars of our fiscal debates change: 1) the false but widely-held belief that Social Security increases our deficit, and 2) our fundamentally-flawed tax and spending policies that drain federal coffers to benefit corporations and those in the top one percent of incomes.

The current field of GOP presidential candidates offers little solace to seniors who are worried that their Medicare and Social Security, or that of their kids and grandchildren, will be sacrificed to pay for even more tax breaks for those least in need.

For example, Mitt Romney has called for a higher Social Security retirement age, which would hurt blue collar workers far more than venture capitalists. He wants to move toward a privatized "voucher" system for Medicare that would have seniors buying coverage from insurance companies. This would be a taxpayer-subsidized gift for corporations that already enjoy exorbitant profits. Moreover, under Romney's Medicare, seniors would face great risk and anxiety, as its funding levels would face annual votes in Congress.

Newt Gingrich would privatize Social Security, allowing Wall Street to profit handsomely by managing individual accounts tied to the roller coaster of the stock market. After what we have seen in the past decade, do we really want Bear Stearns, AIG or Bernie Madoff getting their hands on our Social Security? Gingrich -- who once said he hoped Medicare would "wither on the vine" -- also supports a voucher program through private health insurance providers. The last time these companies got a piece of Medicare, courtesy of George W. Bush in 2003, it resulted in what the New York Times called, "a financial windfall larger than even the most optimistic Wall Street analysts had predicted."

America is getting older. The 2010 Census showed that the over 65 population grew by 15.1 percent, versus 9.7 percent for all ages. The 2012 elections will be the first in American history in which the majority of the voting age population is over 45. These demographic changes not only make Social Security and Medicare more important than ever, but they also give older workers and retirees more political clout.

But this increased political voice makes retirees a tempting target for election-year lies and scare tactics. We have already seen benign-sounding groups, such as RetireSafe and 60 Plus Association, that echo industry talking points in high-dollar advertising campaigns that mislead seniors.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act has been a particular target, despite the fact that it has helped over 2.65 million retirees save an average of $569 per year on their prescription drugs. These shameful efforts to scare seniors carry on the legacy started by Sarah Palin's baseless warnings about "death panels."

So what should seniors do between now and November? The most important thing will be to start separating fact from fiction in election year rhetoric. Retirees must reach out to their neighbors to help them better understand the issues and where the candidates stand. It's also important that they educate their children and grandchildren. It's truly time to bring people of all ages together to help save the American dream of a safe and secure retirement when our working days are done.

Social Security and Medicare are two great American success stories. Before, too many people worked until the day they died or lived out their final years in pain and poverty. Our nation has come a long way, and in the 2012 elections we cannot turn back.

Barbara J. Easterling is president of the Alliance for Retired Americans. She was previously the secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America. For more information, visit www.retiredamericans.org or call 1-800-333-7212.