By Reginald Johnson
January 23, 2011
The next few months may be a turning point for this country.
What’s at stake is whether America maintains a social compact between the government and the people or whether that compact is destroyed.
The compact is what was created in the New Deal in the 1930s --- in the form of Social Security ---- and in the 1960s in the form of Medicare and Medicaid. There’s other parts of the compact, such as the commitment to provide support for housing and education programs, but Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main ones.
These programs, while not perfect, have provided vital services and support for hundreds of millions of people. Social Security provides retirement income which many people would not otherwise have. Medicare and Medicaid provide health insurance coverage for millions of people who similarly would not have any coverage if these programs didn’t exist.
If you research back newspaper and magazine articles you would find horror stories about what old people in this country used to go through when there was no income support for the elderly, or government-funded medical services. Or what poor people endured without subsidized medical care.
A lot of folks suffered mightily and died early.
So these programs, such as Social Security, represented an advance for our society.
But now the social compact is under attack. Conservatives, who have never liked the New Deal and Kennedy-Johnson-era social programs and have tried to dismantle them before, are barking at the door again. Backed by big business, the right insists the programs cost too much and add to our debt. They also claim that the government shouldn’t be helping people; everything should be done by the private sector. This of course, is an absurd and backwards notion.
Unfortunately, the right wing has a chance to reach its goal this time. That’s because we have a weak president who --- despite his prior claims about wanting to defend Social Security and Medicare --- is willing to consider changes that will begin the process of undoing these programs. Some of the proposed changes involve raising the retirement age and slashing cost of living increases in Social Security as well as cutting benefits in Medicare and Medicaid. This is all being contemplated in the name of reducing our national debt, which is up around $14 trillion or something.
Raising the retirement age to say, 70, (which is being talked about) would effectively put Social Security benefits out of reach for many, since a good number of the potential beneficiaries will die before being able to collect. Reducing benefits and funding for Medicare and Medicaid would also be disastrous, since these programs are already underfunded. Many doctors right now are rejecting Medicare because the reimbursement rates are too low.
Some of the cost-cutting proposals were discussed by Obama’s deficit reduction commission last fall. Though that commission failed to reach a consensus on recommendations for spending cuts, word is Obama will go ahead anyway and call for entitlement cuts in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
After that, who knows?
Republicans control the House. Many in the GOP, along with centrist Democrats, might support Social Security/Medicare cuts, amid scare mongering in the media about how big deficits threaten the economy. Ditto for the Senate.
So there could be support for this. That is, unless there is a very strong public reaction against it. Here’s the good news: polls indicate that while people are concerned about deficit reduction, they really don’t want cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
A recent New York Times/CBS poll show that a majority of Americans said they’re against the program cuts, and instead would like to see rollbacks in the military budget. A poll of Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future also showed that while there was some support for deficit reduction, people don’t like the social cuts and want more emphasis on job creation and economic growth.
In an article in the Huffington Post, RJ Eskow of The Campaign for America’s Future said if Obama tacks to the political right and stresses deficit reduction for the rest of his term, it will be harmful for many Americans and politically dangerous. “The president’s in danger of moving in a direction that will lose everybody he needs,” he said, commenting on the poll. Pointing to a loss of support from youth and union households, among other groups, Eskow said that “Literally every demographic group he and his party needs will be alienated by a right-leaning set of policies.”
While the news is bleak on Obama’s direction on programs like Social Security, there’s also a moment of opportunity for the left. This is a time when progressives can jump on this issue and rally not only many Democrats, but independents and even some Tea Party people ( I know that will require a lot of work, but it can be done) to a wider fightback. There’s potential for a broad new political coalition.
A key part of building that coalition will be to educate people as to the real causes of the deficit. It’s not spending on social programs like Medicare and certainly not Social Security, which is funded entirely by workers and employers. Instead the debt is driven by the trillions being spent on the military budget, wars overseas and Wall Street bailouts together with revenue shortfalls caused by lavish tax breaks for the rich and big corporations.