In old age, health declines. This is obvious, but its implications for social wellbeing are enormous.
In a system where the majority of people have to sell their labor for wages to survive, people’s ability to support themselves financially almost always decreases as they age. Without public assistance, therefore, old age is comfortable only for those with savings, and uncomfortable if not downright miserable for those without.
This is why the United States passed the Social Security Act in 1935, which guaranteed a source of income to replace wages for all people 65 and older, along with the Social Security Act Amendments in 1965, which created Medicare, a public health insurance program for the same population. These programs are financed socially, by adjusting the tax rate schedule to accommodate them — that is, by requiring everyone in society to contribute, based on their ability to pay, for benefits that they will be entitled to after a certain age.
These and other mid-century programs made it a little bit easier to grow old in America, for a while. But they have come under strain as wages have stagnated and the cost of housing and education skyrocketed, placing a greater burden on social welfare programs to achieve adequate income for people. Meanwhile, programs themselves have been systematically starved of resources or outright eliminated.
Older Americans haven’t fared well. In fact, they’re filing for bankruptcy in record numbers. A new report from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project called “Graying of US Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society” contends that, while it took a few decades to fully set in, older Americans are now experiencing the consequences of the assault on the social safety net that began under Reagan and has persisted, with leadership from both parties, ever since.
Running the Risk
“Government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan was fond of saying. “Government is the problem.” His election inaugurated the reign of the free-market neoliberals, who advocated supposedly leaner and more efficient market-based alternatives to socially-funded government programs. Not coincidentally, these alternatives were friendly to capitalists — lower taxes, new lucrative private markets.
In 1982, Reagan established a commission made up of corporate executives whose task was to “root out inefficiency” in government spending. The Grace Commission issued “2,478 cost-cutting, revenue enhancing recommendations” that took aim at federal wages, retirement systems, healthcare programs, and a variety of federal subsidies which were deemed wasteful. The chairman of the commission, successful businessman J. Peter Grace, wrote to Reagan, “If the American people realized how rapidly Federal Government spending is likely to grow under existing legislated programs, I am convinced they would compel their elected representatives to ‘get the Government off their backs.’”
One man’s “getting the Government off their backs” is another’s evaporation of opportunity. As social programs have withered, wages have stagnated, and inequality has skyrocketed, many ordinary working people have lost their financial footing and their retirement prospects have dimmed. Today, just one hundred CEOs have the same amount of money stored away for retirement as the bottom 41 percent of the American population.
Meanwhile the age at which a person is eligible for full Social Security benefits has risen from 65 to 70, and the penalty for early retirement has increased up to 30 percent. Medicare recipients’ out-of-pocket costs are ballooning. Defined benefit pensions have been replaced with unpredictable and risky employee-owned 401(k)s. The list goes on.
And now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Consumer Bankruptcy Project found that since 1991, the rate of Americans age sixty-five to seventy-four filing for bankruptcy has doubled. The rate for those age seventy-five and over has tripled.
“The changes are so great,” they found, “that the broader trend of an aging US population can explain only a small proportion of what is happening in the bankruptcy courts. Older Americans’ reported reasons for filing strongly suggest that they are experiencing the fallout from our current individualized risk society and the corresponding shrinkage of their social safety net.”
The researchers’ data backs this up, suggesting that “that financial crises associated with living in America’s high-risk society are highly correlated with older Americans’ increasing use of the bankruptcy system.” As risk and responsibility have shifted from society as a whole onto individuals to pay their own way — even when they can’t work at all — older Americans are increasingly vulnerable to financial ruin.
The Means of Life
The responses to the questionnaires collected by the Consumer Bankruptcy Project illuminate the predicament that working-class older Americans are in. When asked the reason for bankruptcy, one respondent said:
All things went up in price. Retirement never went up. Had a part time job that was helping to meet monthly payments. House payment kept going up. Was fired from my part time job that I had for over 10 years without any warning. Being 67 and having back problems, not many people will hire you even as part time worker.
Here we can see the complex of problems that give rise to financial difficulty in old age. Income in retirement isn’t sufficient to cover the rising cost of living, including healthcare costs and payments on debt. After a lifetime of depressed wages, many people don’t have the savings to meet their financial responsibilities, yielding need employment to supplement their income.
But the aging body leads to a (real or perceived) inability to do the work needed to secure a wage. As a result, older Americans are increasingly left without much financial recourse besides personal bankruptcy — which is not a panacea, just a last-ditch effort to eliminate personal debt and stop the multiplication of costs.
One path to solving this problem is to make a concerted effort to drive up wages, control living costs, and repair the social safety net, so that people enter old age with savings instead of debt, and so that older people who can’t work still have a way to sustain themselves in their final decades. The Left should pursue this approach without reservation.
And there is a deeper issue, too, which requires a more radical solution in the long-term. The problem is that people are required to sell their labor to capitalists in order to have access to the means of life to begin with. What if, instead, we had a society where everyone was guaranteed a decent living just because they’re alive, not on condition of employment, and we pooled our resources and our productive capacities to make good on that guarantee? Then perhaps all people, young and old, could live with dignity.