Rodger Wetzel, Bismarck, Published December 08 2012
Letter: It’s more than numbers in a budgetThe way some people talk in Washington, you could get the idea that Social Security and Medicare are little more than numbers in a budget.
Yet for families in North Dakota and all over America, Social Security and Medicare have a deeper meaning: They are the very foundation of their security in retirement.
Social Security and Medicare enable millions of older Americans to survive financially each month, after years of working hard and paying taxes to earn these protections. One day, younger people will count on these same pillars of security for their own independence and dignity in old age.
As lawmakers consider the U.S. budget, here are a couple numbers they should keep in mind: Half of America’s seniors get by on less than $20,000 a year. And here’s another: Typical seniors already spend nearly 20 percent of their incomes on health care, a percentage that continues to rise.
These facts argue against treating Social Security and Medicare as bargaining chips in a year-end political deal. Instead, we should be discussing responsible ways to preserve their vital protections for future generations.
A good place to start is by recognizing the essential role that Social Security and Medicare play in the lives of average Americans:
- Social Security provides more than half of the household income for one out of two older Americans. Social Security makes up 50 percent or more of the income for three in five North Dakotans age 65 and older. Three in 10 older North Dakotans rely on Social Security as their only source of income.
- Social Security benefits keep more than one in three seniors above the poverty line – that’s 32,000 people in North Dakota. And their benefits average a modest $12,900 annually.
- Medicare enables more than 50 million older Americans and people with disabilities to receive affordable health care. In North Dakota, that’s almost 95,000 people. Even with Medicare, North Dakota seniors still pay $4,500 on average out of their own pockets for care each year. Without Medicare, many would have to spend thousands more for private coverage – if they could afford it at all.
In a recent AARP poll, 91 percent of Americans age 50 and older said Social Security was “critical” to the economic security of seniors, and an even higher 95 percent described Medicare as critical to health security for seniors.
The fact is we are living in a time when retirement security has unraveled for many, due to a combination of trends. Private pensions are shrinking. Savings rates remain low. The cost of living continues to rise.
These realities make it unwise and even reckless to cut back Social Security and Medicare, just to meet numerical targets in a budget deal. Rather, the economic pressures facing older Americans warrant an open, thoughtful discussion on ways to enhance retirement security and how to strengthen the bedrock programs that provide it.
Of course, budgets matter. But we should never forget their impact on the real people behind the numbers.
Wetzel is state president, North Dakota AARP.