May 1, 2017
May is Older Americans Month, but the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans are putting a serious damper on the celebration. Yes, candidate Trump promised not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
But his administration has been actively undermining those pledges. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney — who once called Social Security a Ponzi scheme — questioned the legitimacy of Social Security Disability Insurance — and wouldn’t promise a Presidential veto of legislation to privatize Medicare (a pet project of House Speaker Paul Ryan).
President Trump champions the GOP’s American Health Care Act, which guts Medicaid, undermines the solvency of Medicare, and allows insurers to charge older Americans up to five times as much as people in their 20s.
Older Americans Month (originally named “Senior Citizens Month”) began in 1963 during the Kennedy administration amidst growing concern about our nation’s seniors. At that time, there were only 17 million Americans aged 65 or older, compared to some 46 million today. A third of seniors lived in poverty.
Two years later, President Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid and the Older Americans Act into law. The original purpose of Older Americans Month was to celebrate the contributions of seniors to our society. In the ensuing 54 years, it has come to embody a wider awareness of socio-economic justice for the elderly.
If the administration wanted to honor older Americans, would it have presented a “skinny budget” that needlessly hurts seniors? The President’s preliminary budget slashes domestic spending to pay for a $54 billion military buildup.
The spending plan would cut federal grants that help low income seniors cope with basic needs under the Older Americans Act. The administration wants to cut $3 million the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, which helps fund Meals on Wheels.
This program provides some 220 million meals to more than 2 million seniors a year. Yet, Budget Director Mulvaney dismissed the efficacy of Meals on Wheels, saying it “sounds great” but “we’re not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show how that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.”
Meals on Wheels is not the only imperiled Older Americans Act program under the Trump budget. Federal grants that help low income seniors find community service employment, isolated seniors find companionship, and struggling seniors heat their homes also face deep cuts. The President has also done seniors no favors by practically flat-lining the budget for the woefully underfunded Social Security Administration (SSA).
Deep budget cuts have already forced SSA to freeze hiring and close field offices across the country. Without a serious budget boost, wait times for the Social Security claims helpline will continue to climb — and the average 500 days it already takes to get a disability hearing will likely soar beyond two years. Some 8 thousand applicants died last year waiting for adjudication of their disability claims, yet Trump’s budget proposal fails to provide the funds SSA needs to improve service.
Targeting programs that benefit seniors to help pay for a tax cut for the wealthy is simply unjust. Seniors are among our most economically vulnerable citizens. Over half of workers between the ages of 55-64 have no retirement savings. According to SSA, 69 percent of all seniors rely on Social Security for at least half of their income. One out of every five senior citizens is trying to scrape by on an average income of just $8,300 a year.
During Older Americans Month, we will no doubt hear once again the myth that Social Security is going “bankrupt” and needs to be “reformed” (translation: raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for seniors, the disabled, and their families).
House Social Security Subcommittee Chair Sam Johnson introduced a bill in the last Congress that would do those very things. On the other side, Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. John Larson have introduced legislation that would keep Social Security solvent for 75 years while protecting Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) and modestly boosting benefits.
We will also continue to hear that Social Security is an “entitlement” that adds to the deficit. In fact, it is a self-funded earned benefit that doesn’t contribute a penny to the deficit. Social Security represents a commitment to Americans who paid into the system during their working years and rightly expect to collect livable benefits when they retire or become disabled.
The administration is expected to release the President’s full FY 2018 budget sometime in May. It may contain more granular detail about proposed cuts to Older Americans Act programs. It may even feature some further fudges on the President’s promises not to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. During this Older Americans Month, we must remember that slashing seniors’ programs may satisfy the appetites of budget hawks in the administration and Congress, but it is hardly a responsible — or moral — choice.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He formerly served as staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.