Jul 1 1991


Media Attacks on the Elderly

Budget out of control, banks going bust, states and cities going broke, children going hungry — who’s to blame? For major media, no problem. It’s elderly Americans.

In their drive to punish gray hair, big media give no quarter. There is no trial, no defense.

“Elderly, Affluent — and Selfish”, snarls a typical op-ed in the New York Times (10/10/89). “The 800-Pound Gorilla Vs. the Hungry Baby”, growls a Washington Post column (10/22/90), referring to the invisible geezer lobby as an ape. Time magazine (11/26/90) says the country could work its way out of the hole it’s in “by spending less on the elderly and more on preschoolers,” but alas, “the elderly vote and preschoolers don’t.” Columnist Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News (10/22/90) proposes a cure for that: a Constitutional amendment denying the vote to everybody who gets a government check, like Social Security.

Nelson happens to be one of the more liberal members of the Washington press corps. What could cause him to utter such a cruel jest? It is that he and others like him have been taken in by a vicious and preposterous propaganda campaign — and have never heard the truth of it.

For instance, a New York Times report (10/19/90) was headlined, “Political Might of Elderly Is Felt Again in Senate: Dole Complains That Medicare Has Become Untouchable.” The news? The Senate had agreed to cut Medicare spending by only $43 billion, rather than the $60 billion slash that was in the original budget deal.

Earlier, the House had done likewise, terrified no doubt by that same 800-pound gorilla. A Times news report (10/12/90) called it “another demonstration of the power of entitlements for the elderly and lobbyists of the elderly.”

Times reporter Jason DeParle went on to write that Social Security and Medicare “cost more than four of every 10 federal dollars” — after, of course, “subtracting military spending and interest.”

A similar numbers game was played by the White House in its 1992 budget proposal, which calls, incidentally, for another $13 billion cut in Medicare. Newsday bit on this one, in color charts published February 5.

One chart showed “Social Security and other social insurance receipts” as making up 30 percent of revenues. The other put “Social Security and other benefit payments to individuals” — whatever in the world that might include — at 41 percent.

What the two charts — sourced to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget — concealed was that Social Security and Medicare taxes take in far more than they pay out in benefits, thus subsidizing the federal deficit by $1 billion a week.

But in the New York Times, DeParle still wrote that spending under these programs “cramps other social spending, leaving less to build housing, fight infant mortality, provide better schools, battle drug abuse and otherwise invest in the future.” From this point of view, Nelson’s proposal to take the vote away seems like modest punishment for baby killers.

Over the years, many liberals like Nelson, Tom Wicker and Anthony Lewis have been taken in by this sort of propaganda. If the elderly were indeed well-off and were indeed bankrupting the republic and depriving the needy, why shouldn’t liberals object?

Well, perhaps they should have been a teensy bit skeptical.

They should have realized that when a typical worker retires, his or her income drops precipitously. A call to Social Security would have turned up the news that most of the elderly depend on it for most or all of their income, that fully half would fall below the poverty line were it not for Social Security, that Social Security and Medicare help millions of children and the disabled as well as the elderly, and that no more than 3percent of the elderly may be described as affluent.

Anyway, the notion that this administration and this Congress would use money cut from programs for the elderly to feed hungry babies is as absurd as the other basic postulates of geezer-bashing: that the elderly as a class are rich (they are of course poorer than any other segment of adults); that they are especially selfish (they are more supportive of a cradle-to-grave healthcare system than any other group); and that they have overwhelming political clout.

Over the last decade, while taxes on the rich were being cut by more than half, old age benefits have taken repeated hits. Early ’80s bankruptcy scares allowed for sharp cuts in pensions and heavy increases in payroll taxes, touted to assure the solvency of Social Security into the 21st century.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the perpetrators of these cuts, has since acknowledged that the insolvency of Social Security was a hoax, but it enabled the media to present the cuts and hikes as a “Social Security rescue.” (See Extra! , 1-2/88.)

That 1983 act also pushed back the retirement age from 65 to 67, in phases beginning in the year 2005. That meant that Baby Boomers and the generations that followed — the real targets of the geezer-bashing campaign — would pay more and get less over a lifetime. Indeed, this very argument was then used by William Buckley et al. to urge repeal of Social Security et al.

One might think that the early cutbacks (there were others, like trimming pension pennies back to the next lower dollar, and chipping away at Medicare and Medicaid) would have mollified the geezer-bashers. But the continuing growth of the national debt, the Savings & Loan debacle, the crisis in local government and the decline in real wages maintained a serious need for scapegoats. Who better than the geezers, especially if they could not answer back?

The beneficiaries of the propaganda campaign can be seen from those who sponsored it. One of the outfits that served as a major guide to mainstream journalists was Americans for Generational Equity (AGE). In 1987, Common Cause published a partial list of donors: General Dynamics, Rockwell, TRW, U.S. Steel, ITT, Metropolitan Life, Massachusetts Mutual — and the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, the lobby of the Savings & Loans. Such were the interests that were accusing elderly Americans of robbing babies.

It must be emphasized that the principal target of this campaign is not the elderly, but all segments of the public being hurt by retrenchment,rollbacks and unfair taxation. All are being told that the elderly are hogging what is rightfully theirs. All are victims of bad reporting. All need to realize that the battle for fair play must begin in the news media.