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Milestone Birthdays for America's Safety Nets

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Some social programs are so embedded in our national consciousness and so indispensable to the people who use them that it seems like they've always been there. But the fact is, Medicare and Medicaid are only 50 years old, and celebrating their anniversaries this month.

Prior to 1965, almost half of all Americans of retirement age either had no health insurance at all or were inadequately covered.

The idea of a national health insurance system for all Americans was actually proposed by Teddy Roosevelt when he ran for president in 1912. It went nowhere at the time, and re-surfaced 33 years later via Harry Truman. Again it proved a hard pill to swallow. Even John F. Kennedy made an attempt at it. But it wasn't until July 30, 1965, that it was finally signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. That was the date when access to health care became a universal right to Americans 65 and older.

The Older Americans Act was also established at that time, supporting community-based programs including Meals on Wheels, transportation, and legal services.

The granddaddy of all safety nets, Social Security, itself turns 80 this year. All of these support services for seniors are part of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging.

These are programs of growing importance as more and more Americans become eligible for benefits. With 55 million Americans already on Medicare, and 59 million receiving Social Security benefits, the funding of these essential programs is a major concern. And the challenge will only increase. According to AARP, over the next 15 years 11,000 people a day will be turning 65.

The National Institute of Retirement Security reports that almost half of all working age households have nothing saved in a retirement account. The old employer pension plans have been going the way of the dodo. 401K and IRA plans are inadequate for most people. That leaves Social Security payments, which currently constitute most of the income for a quarter of all older Americans.

Sadly, no discussion of these safety-net programs for seniors is possible without politics rearing its head.

Critics call these "welfare programs," which is politic-speak for not wanting give what they perceive as "handouts." But these programs are hardly welfare. "These are benefits that workers have earned by paying into these programs throughout their working lives," points out Jo Anne Jenkins, CEO of AARP.

Critics have long had a hate-relationship with Social Security in particular. When President Obama took office the Social Security trust fund was projected to run out of money by 2017. That date has now been pushed back to 2030, giving succeeding administrations more time to solve the problem of long-term funding.

Improving care while reducing costs but not reducing benefits is a tricky balancing act. But a way forward has to be found. Facts are facts, and the fact is that America's population is aging faster than it's being renewed. Our older citizens deserve to be able to enjoy a stress-free retirement with access to good medical care without breaking the bank. Remember, each of us will be there sooner or later, so we're not just advocating for today's seniors but for seniors to come. Like you and me.