Less than a century ago American society started laying down the foundation for the kind of healthy old age which is suitable for one of the most prosperous nations in history. In response to the “Great Depression” we designed Social Security – a national retirement pension program. 30 years later came Medicare – a single-payer health insurance program based on the idea of spreading health costs among the whole American community so that how much you earned, or how long you lived into retirement, your medical costs would be provided. Then we created the Older Americans Act to support 14,000 Senior Centers providing food, transportation, and community engagement – all essentials for healthy aging. Finally we established HUD programs to subsidize rental housing for low income seniors. Quite an accomplishment! Lots of folks worried that these programs would harm the economy, but actually we thrived, and elders contributed more to the quality of our community and productive lives than ever before. In the meantime, the texture of elder life has shifted in vital ways, and the foundation we started in 1935 with Social Security is in need of a real tuneup. Again there is concern about our economic capacity to support a healthy life for elders, but now is not the time to lose our courage and faith in the future. And it is certainly not time to willingly allow people to suffer and die needlessly – that is precisely what is at stake!
We did not anticipate how healthy we would become and how long we would be living. We didn’t guess that housing and healthcare would eat up more of our wealth all the time, and that inflation would continually reduce the value of our savings, at the same time we are discovering that we didn’t save nearly enough. Who would have thought that those mortgages would never be paid, extended families would move apart and that we would become a highly mobile and transient culture.
Our boldly designed “safety net” has too many holes, and not enough safety to provide real security for the third of elders who have low fixed incomes.
Nobody really needs to be blamed for this shortfall. We got off to a great start, but things changed in unexpected ways. There is still an opportunity to expand and simplify our approaches to sharing our common wealth. We need to start by recognizing that all of the old people were the very ones who created that wealth by decades of hard work, by raising our families, and by building our vital communities. We’ve just come too far to fail. Now is the time to continue the quest. Here is what Franklin Roosevelt said when we got started on this “take better care of the old folks” path in 1935 by creating Social Security. Remember, we continued 30 years later by inventing Medicare and passing the Older Americans Act.
“Security was attained in the earlier days through the interdependence of members of families upon each other and of the families within a small community upon each other. The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it.