Thursday, 05 December 2013
The Government War on Old People
I dislike slogans that declare war. You know, the war on drugs, the war on poverty. We have all seen how well those have gone and it deprives a word like “war” of its power when we apply it to every social policy that needs attention.
Nevertheless, it struck me as I read the news yesterday morning that War on Old People has become a pertinent and useful phrase. “Detroit Ruling on Bankruptcy Lifts Pension Protections” blared a New York Times headline:
”[A] federal judge held on Tuesday,” wrote the reporter, “that this battered city could formally enter bankruptcy and asserted that Detroit’s obligation to pay pensions in full was not untouchable.
“The judge made it clear that public employee pensions were not protected in a federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy, even though the Michigan Constitution expressly protects them. 'Pension benefits are a contractual right and are not entitled to any heightened protection in a municipal bankruptcy,' he said.”
In another story from the same edition of The Times, reporter Mary Williams Walsh wrote that the ruling had repercussions beyond Michigan. It
”...could alter the course of bankrupt cities like Stockton and San Bernardino, Calif., that had been operating under the assumption that pensions were untouchable.”
Although the new decision will undoubtedly be appealed, for now the law says pensions can be cut and the judge made no ruling or recommendation about how much.
That's the Michigan decision. On the same day the legislature in Illinois, a blue state with a strong labor movement, passed
”...a deal to shore up the state’s debt-engulfed pension system by trimming retiree benefits and increasing state contributions.”
Democrats and Republicans worked together to create this bill. Both parties worked hard to get it passed and it was supported by Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Farm Bureau:
”Union leaders and some Democratic lawmakers opposed it, just as strenuously, arguing that the bill fell too harshly on state workers who had paid into their pension plans over the years with the understanding that the benefits would be there when they retired.
“Some Republicans also opposed the bill, saying it did not trim enough to solve the state’s pension troubles.”
Republicans said the bill “did not trim enough.” Of course they did.
So as of Tuesday, retired public employees – people like police, firemen and their widow(er)s and children - in Michigan and Illinois (with other states sure to follow) now know their pensions will be cut but not when and not by how much.
It's not like they are rolling in dough. Average public pensions in Detroit are about $19,000 a year. Recall, too, that these retirees do not have Social Security accounts like the rest of us. The pensions were in place of those. Merry Christmas, Michigan and Illinois.
For decades, right wing politicians and their wealthy supporters like Peter G. Peterson have been doing their best to cut Social Security benefits. As you know, the latest attacks are focused on reducing cost-of-living increases by adopting the chained CPI calculation which would produce lower COLAs than the current system.
And right now, a bipartisan Congressional committee has been charged with creating a budget before the next government shutdown deadline of 15 January. On the table, as is always so with Congress (and President Barack Obama), “entitlement” cuts are being discussed.
Why is it, will someone please explain, that when government budgets are being hammered out (in extremis, as in Detroit or in general as currently in D.C.), the first place legislators go for cuts is old people, the ones who have paid into and earned their pensions and Social Security?
They don't raise corporate taxes. They don't close tax loopholes. They don't start taxing currently exempt property and all manner of other ways to raise revenue that are more fair.
No. They always reach first for what little income retirees have, taking food from their mouths, making medications unaffordable and sometimes forcing people who can no longer afford their mortgages out of their homes.
Now, THAT is a war worthy of the name: a War on Old People. And it becomes more evident with every court decision, every sound bite, every trial balloon purposely leaked from Congressional committees that it is accelerating. What frightens me is that this time they will win.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: Thinking on Your Feet Is