The answer, of course, is Social Security and Medicare. They remain by far our greatest social policy achievements. Today, a 60-year-old man in the US has an expected life span of 20 more years (PDF)—well above what was the case 50 or even 40 years ago (PDF), when Social Security didn't relieve poverty and Medicare was just getting underway. Improved medical care is surely part of that. But income security is also an important factor. People who are not poor live longer than people who are.
Social Security prevents poverty. It's wealth, exactly like a big bond that you can't sell.
And Social Security prevents poverty. It's wealth, exactly like a big bond that you can't sell. If the monthly benefit is $1,000 and the interest rate is 2 percent, the bond is worth $600,000—and that's a bond you own, right now. You don't have to save for it: You've paid for it, up front, via the payroll tax. And there's more. As health care expert Harold Pollack has pointed out, Social Security's Disabled Adult Child program (PDF) is an insurance policy worth more than $400,000, protecting you if you happen to have a mentally or physically disabled loved one—something that could be only a car crash away.
Medicare has also been a huge success: popular, efficient, and less costly per "unit of care" provided than private medical care. Medicare is a big insurance policy you've already paid for, in full, that takes effect at 65—an age when private insurers wouldn't touch you. That's wealth, too, a huge buffer between sickness and bankruptcy.
Are you surprised that these programs are under attack? The same forces that went after the unions in the 1980s, that relentlessly pushed free-trade agreements while manufacturing jobs evaporated, and that destroyed housing values in the 2000s— they're on the prowl again. If Social Security and Medicare are cut, finance and insurance companies will skim the cream—the wealthier, healthier participants—while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Social Security and Medicare, they think, are easy prey, once we've been softened up by scare stories about how they're on the "brink of bankruptcy" and we "can't afford them."
It isn't true, of course. Social Security and Medicare can't go bankrupt, just as the Pentagon can't. They're not in some separate bank account or lockbox—they're government programs that we either choose to pay for or don't. And not only can we afford them, they're a bargain, providing modest comfort and decent care to people who would otherwise financially burden their families—or die.
The attack will come right after the election, when the Bowles-Simpson commission on deficit reduction issues its report. It will almost surely recommend deep cuts in Social Security, probably in the form of an increase in the retirement age. This is a direct cut in benefits, targeted in an especially nasty way at minorities and all others who work harder, earn less (PDF), and live shorter lives (PDF) after retirement than, say, college professors or senators.
The cochairman of that commission, former GOP senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, has made his views clear. In an August email (PDF) to the head of OWL (née the Older Women's League), he called Social Security "a milk cow with 310 million tits." He wants you to think of Social Security as welfare, not something you've earned—a boondoggle, rather than a program that puts money into the economy every day.
The fact is, even if you were never an autoworker, were never in a union, never owned a house, even if you've never been sick and never got anything else from the New Deal—whoever you are, Social Security and Medicare help you right now. They support your business: Spending by old folks is part of the income of small and large companies everywhere, an effective and stable support for the economy. Social Security provides survivors' benefits that raise children in your schools. It will keep your parents off your back. And when you do get older, Social Security and Medicare will protect you, and they will protect your children from bankrupting themselves over you. That is, if these programs are protected, now, from their assailants.
The House has agreed to vote on the Bowles-Simpson package—whatever it eventually contains—if it passes in the Senate. So it will come down to the Senate. Will the Democrats hold the line? Or will they give in to this assault on the last bastion of the American middle class?