Nothing About Us Without Us!
by Phil Nash
On the morning after the debt-ceiling vote this week, The Denver Post ran a front-page story about a $200 donation made by 64-year-old retiree Susan Noel, of rural Florissant, Colorado. What made her $200 gift newsworthy?
Noel gave her money to the U.S. Government to help pay down its debt. She is not well off; her income is from Social Security Disability. Noel told a reporter she would be willing to take a modest cut in her government benefits in the spirit of sacrifice for the country. “We need to…acknowledge we’re in debt and start to get it paid off.” She said she might donate more in the future.
The debt-ceiling vote should have been a no-brainer. Instead, it turned into a demoralizing political brawl over budgetary priorities. The high cost of an aging society was on the hot seat. So-called “entitlements” are a favorite target of Congressional deficit hawks looking for ways to move money out of one pocket into another without raising taxes. Hundreds of thousands of people called and told Congress to keep their hands off. Theoretically, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are “off the table” as far as cuts are concerned. For now.
End of story?
I don’t think so. In today’s toxic political environment, anything can happen. Sometimes in the middle of the night behind closed doors. The Pentagon is already pushing back, telling Congress to look elsewhere for cuts, Social Security and Medicare for example.
Someday, we who are 50+ (welcome to the club, President Obama!) won’t be able to get our way on public policy by generating a million or three million or five million phone calls to Congress. The escalating costs of an aging society is everyone’s problem, and people 50+ have to be part of the solution. Many are. People like Susan Noel exemplify a nearly unlimited (and untapped) national resource: older Americans who want to give back.
Last summer, Age4Action, a national network of organizations working to boost civic engagement among people 50+, organized forums in six American cities to gather ideas for upcoming revisions to the Older Americans Act. (Click here for the report.) In Los Angeles, forum speaker Marvin Schachter had this to say:
“At a time when senior programs are under attack, the need to create and build a senior movement that actually includes seniors themselves is essential. The slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ comes to mind as an absolutely necessary feature of this new movement. Seniors must be involved in helping to solve the problems that plague our country.”
Nothing about us without us. Love it.
All across America, tens of millions of older adults are finding ways to contribute. We are working, we are volunteering, we are learning new skills, and we are playing leadership roles in our communities. (Click here to learn about some of them.) We vote. We give to charity. We help our families.
And, sometimes grumpy and sometimes polite, we call our elected officials when a threatening “action alert” lands in our inbox.
We can do better. We need a national movement that is a catalyst for the generosity, patriotism and common sense of America’s elders to emerge and help shape public policy, especially when it directly affects our well-being. Our agenda cannot just about protecting our “entitlements,” a word I hate. (Funny, isn’t it? If it helps the vulnerable or elderly, it’s an “entitlement.” If it’s a tax break for a huge corporation, it’s an “incentive.”)
The agenda for older Americans must also be about leaving a legacy to our nation that is as good, if not better than the one we inherited.
Crushing national debt is not something I want as part of my legacy, even if much of it was created by policies I disagree with. Someday, I may follow Susan Noel’s lead and leave part of my estate to the U.S. Treasury, a little-publicized way to help the nation. Right now, the government gets only about $3 million a year in voluntary gifts.
Meanwhile, something’s got to give. Realistically, let’s get Social Security and Medicare back “on the table”—not just as quick-fix sacrifices to balance the budget. Instead, let’s shine a light on them as extraordinarily successful programs that help the needy while funneling billions back into the economy. Very simply, the convergence of aging demographics and longevity require that we tune up these programs to keep them running for future generations.
America’s elders can’t just keep screaming our demands outside the locked doors of Congressional subcommittees. We have to take an honest look at the high cost of an aging nation and start proposing constructive and thoughtful solutions of our own. If we don’t, sooner or later, we are going to be tuned out altogether.
Phil Nash is a writer and communications consultant with a 35-year history in public affairs.
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