Elders' Advocates Worry Politics May Push Vital Programs off 'Fiscal Cliff'

Special to Informer | 11/14/2012, 12:19 p.m.

Since last week's win by President Barack Obama, the issues of aging and retirement have loomed just beneath the headlines.

Women, youth and a record Latino vote were credited with the president's victory in key swing states. But it's Americans over the age of 50, especially those from immigrant and minority communities, who could have the most to gain -- and lose.

That's because as the budget crisis looms, these seniors could be the first and hardest hit.

Two days after the election, the top story on the New York Times read, "Back to Work: Obama Greeted by Looming Fiscal Crisis."

The so-called "fiscal cliff"--more accurately a slower fiscal slope--that the White House and Congress are now racing toward is the combination of across-the-board federal budget cuts and tax increases--over $600 billion worth--that will kick in on Jan. 2.

The meat-axe of automatic government cuts (officially called sequestration) that will swing--unless the President and Congress can hone a more surgical approach to needed budget cuts and tax increases -- would whack at everything from military spending to meals on wheels for homebound seniors. (The automatic cuts, though, would not touch Social Security or most of Medicare.)

Seniors' Advocates Worry About "Grand Bargain"

Advocates for elders, though, worry that political agendas in Washington will cut a fiscal "Grand Bargain" that might trade off modest revenue increases with cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits that vulnerable Americans need to get by in hard times.

Immediately following the election, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled that any deal generating new government revenue -- not, mind you, "new taxes" but maybe some closed tax loopholes -- must include reforms to entitlement programs. Despite Obama's win and Democratic gains in the Senate, Boehner is overseeing a House that remains under Republican control, with a strong Tea Party-supported contingent.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stated the day after the election, "We are not going to mess with Social Security," in cutting a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal. Other prominent Democrats, though, reiterated recommendations to place everything on the negotiating table, including entitlements.

Larry Polivka, executive director of the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University, stressed, "Despite the immediate feel-good results of the election, Democrats could hand over the huge advantage they have on Social Security and Medicare, if they agree to cost reductions as part of a Grand Bargain. For Democrats, those programs are the family jewels."

Near-Retirees Will Need Programs

Observers say those most at risk of losing retirement benefits are not seniors who have already retired, but near-retirees -- those over the age of 50 who will need these programs once they retire.

"Many minorities--especially those over 50 who are near retirement--are realizing they will be more dependent on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," said Florida State University's Polivka, a former director of the Florida Agency for Aging and Disabled Services.

"Minority pre-retirees are in worse shape than ever," Polivka said, hit hard by the mortgage and foreclosure crisis; falling interest rates; the increasing Social Security full-retirement age; and, for the relative few with 401(k) or similar pensions, their financial losses from the recession.