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Growing old with Social Security
Media General News Service


December 18, 2005

WASHINGTON - "Social Security can and will be saved," the president proclaimed at the White House aging conference.

"It will require the best efforts of both parties and of both the executive and legislative branches of government. Its future is too important to be used as a political football."

No, those stirring words were not President Bush's. He didn't even do a drop-by of his White House conference on aging last week.

That was President Reagan talking in December 1981.

Reagan had campaigned on restoring the integrity of Social Security, and he vowed to make good on the promise - without raising the payroll tax. He said he could do it by cutting fraud and abuse. His solution: A Task Force on Social Security Reform.

There is a reason that people do not trust Washington.

Twenty-four years and who knows how many task forces later, and we're still waiting for a more secure Social Security.

President Bush made overhauling Social Security his top domestic issue. But he has all but abandoned his plan to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes.

And, they've kept it under wraps, but you may have heard a whisper that the oldest baby boomers are only weeks away from turning 60.

Ready or not, 78 million Americans are beginning to queue up for Medicare. The first will be eligible in 2011.

Turning 60 is what President Clinton - who faces the milestone next year, as does President Bush - used to call a high-class problem. Consider the alternative.

Parade magazine bravely asserts "Life Begins at 60." Television talkers assure us that "60 is the new 40."

Attitudes about life after 60 have changed, and many in the generation born between 1946 and 1964 plan to keep working, some into their 70s, at least part time. Many will be making a virtue of necessity. The "golden years" came with a company pension. Many boomers won't have that financial cushion.

The way things are going, in10 years 70 will be the new 50, unless it's the new 40.

As the wave of 60-somethings builds, we can be grateful that the economy isn't what it was when Reagan promised to fix Social Security. Reagan bragged at the aging conference that his administration had been working to tame inflation. They'd gotten it down to 9.6 percent.

Inflation this year has hovered around 3.8 percent.

Bush was the first president to miss the once-a-decade White House aging conference, and the White House gave no reason why Bush skipped. Maybe he got an intelligence report that the delegates were going to slam both his prescription drug plan and his Social Security proposal. If so, this time the intel was right.

The 1,200 delegates, who came from all over the country, said the Medicare drug plan is a flop. They called for a single drug plan under Medicare. They opposed creating private accounts in Social Security.

In 1961, John Kennedy said it wasn't enough for modern medicine to add years to life.

"Our objective must be to add new life to those years," Kennedy said.

Medicare and Meals on Wheels were two programs that came from earlier aging conferences.

Today, nobody expects sweeping new programs, but they worry about the future of the ones we have. Social Security isn't even the main worry. The larger financial problem is how to pay for Medicare.

Boomers are 26 percent of the population. We are poised to have a country that looks a lot like Florida without the Sunshine State's network of support. People who study aging issues say we need more geriatric doctors and caregivers. We don't have enough public transportation and elderly-friendly housing.

It's not as if this is a surprise. The boomers weren't born yesterday.

In his 1981 speech, Reagan said of the 1960s and early '70s, "It was a time when at least part of the generation of our sons and daughters declared that no one over 30 could be trusted.

"One wonders what they think, now that they themselves have passed that 30-year mark."

I know what one is thinking. Those were the days.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service.
E-mail mmercer(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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