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American Voices: Jon Meacham on our obligation to the elderly

I’ve been accused of being old before my time more than once. It’s true that I’ve always felt an affinity for, and been comfortable around, older people. I attribute this to a childhood spent around my grandparents — and even a great-grandparent or two. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

 Part of what I loved — and love — about being around older people is the tangible sense of history they embody. I’m interested in military history, for instance, because both my grandfathers fought in World War II. I’m interested in writing because one of those grandfathers wrote books. I am a happy man today, doing work I love, because of older relatives, teachers, and friends who took the trouble to take an interest in me. I owe them debts I cannot possibly repay.

The question of generational obligation between the old and the young and the young and the old is always fraught. If you doubt it, there’s a play called “King Lear” you should see.

For America to put its fiscal and political matters in order, we know there will have to be a reckoning over the costs of social insurance. What we don’t know right now is how we are going to address these looming shortfalls.

I am a huge admirer of Franklin Roosevelt’s, and I believe social security has done untold good in alleviating the once-widespread issue of poverty among the elderly. FDR believed in the greatness and generosity of Americans — but he was also a cold-blooded politician.

So it’s worth thinking about what he might think about our current conundrum. Older people are politically powerful: they vote and they agitate and officeholders pay attention to them. And politicians today don’t want to anger the voters of today in the service of tomorrow, which is where I think FDR’s spirit of compromise might serve us well. Gradual but real changes in benefits that move us toward a more sustainable future is the wise thing to do. But if older Americans do not embrace reform, it will not happen. There is irony in the fact that the oldest among us may have to take the lead in securing the world that the youngest among us will live in.

When I think back on what my own grandparents gave me, I think they knew, at some level, that they were investing in me. When it’s my turn, I hope I’ll be even half as generous. That’s at least one way to pay down my debts to them. So here’s hoping older people who are themselves embodiments of history will see that history calls them to think of today and of tomorrow, even if everybody else is mired in the here and now.


  • jan

    Questions to consider.  Have you ever had to share a small house with your in-laws or parents after adulthood?  I doubt it.

    Do you wonder what will happen to you when your money runs out?  Once again, I doubt it.  The fact that you’re on tv and hold the several highly lucrative positions you hold make that extremely unlikely. 

    Do you really think kids will be able to simultaneously take care of their kids and their parents while struggling to exist on two paychecks that have been cut repeatedly and decreased benefits while the cost of things continues to rise without pause?  What do you think all that added stress will do to a family? 

    Did you notice the fact that when Reagan started attacking wages, lower income women went to work to make up the difference and stabilize the family’s finances?  Who do we send out to get a job to support the family this time; the kids?     

    There is a clear and obvious disconnect between theory of how you think it should be and the reality that most of us live in.  And there is an absolute canyon between your own situation and the situation the majority of us are in.  Respectfully, it is easy to talk about a sacrifice that you know you and your family will never experience.        

  • guest

    Did you struggle graduating high school? Because I’ve heard heard much better from high school students with a 1.8 GPA. WOW! You are the student never ‘left behind’, before the idea was conceptualized and mainstreamed. No wait you wrote this 5 minutes before air time. If you report on something, try investigating not just reading old AP wires.!

  • Spectator

    Jon, I have always appreciated your commentary. I was a scientist working in R&D up until our company went AWOL from Ohio, back in 2003. I was 54.8 years old. Could never find another job. Gave up after a few 100 applications. Realized I had my health and almost no financial obligations, so decided to do something totally different. We moved South, opened a sewing machine shop which gave me the opportunity to meet a more full spectrum of America than I had ever realized existed. Our clientele covered public sector retirees in their early 50′s through to folks in their late 70′s, who claimed to be between houses, who were living in shelters and sold product in flea markets. The richest Nation on Earth and we have old people adrift. Really, the shop was a  politicizing venture.

    I wonder why no-one in the investigative reporting domain has ever argued that the real problem with Social Security is the inexcusable non-compliance of Federal employees and their ilk? All private sector employees have to wait until they are 65+ to get repayment of their governmental benefits. Even workers in the Social Security administration had no requirement to pay into Social Security. Armed Forces can withdraw from Social Security but actually do not contribute, and have the cheek to draw a pension before anyone else. Bring back conscription if the benefit of 2 years of military service is lifetime healthcare. World War veterans were a different veteran from the 18 year old who drops out of high school, joins up as the escape chute from a life lost and gets $40K to join, lifetime acces to healthcare and can take a government funded military pension from almost any age….why only offer this benefit to those who cannot find a place in social industry, everyone fights for the USA?
    Like and socialized pension scheme or Healthcare, if not everyone is required to pay in to the system, the system will go broke. It is a social program. Not sure why the public employee unions, including loosely connected unions like PBS employees, the teachers, police, firemen, state and local government unions, which are the closest thing America has to socialist ideology, are considered above the “ordinary working person” in their requirement to deserve pension payment before the age of 65, or 66 and now 67. I will make you a deal. Be honest about why the under-educated should have to work until they are in their late 60′s while the connected under-educated i.e. my uncle works for the City, State or the Feds, or other Public and military employees do not? How can the Congressionally appeased union workers live off the taxes paid by minimum wage earners who work until they drop, Little wonder they smoke, drink and do not eat healthy. Their sin was to be born to parents with no education, no connections and no hope. 

  • Diana in Virginia

    My 84-year-old mother and I really enjoyed this segment tonight, & are now new fans of yours.  “Need to Know” aired right after Washington Week tonight, at least here at my mother’s house in Central Virginia, & I hope that continues, as it greatly increases the likelihood that we will remember to watch.

  • Janetplanet555

    My friend who does not have a pension plan at work and who now has a retirement date of 67 to claim Social Security keeps smoking because she and her husband believe they can’t afford to live more than a few years after retirement.  Their plan is that if the cigarettes don’t kill them, they will pull a “Thelma and Louise”.  

  • Janetplanet555

    My friend who does not have a pension plan at work and who now has a retirement date of 67 to claim Social Security keeps smoking because she and her husband believe they can’t afford to live more than a few years after retirement.  Their plan is that if the cigarettes don’t kill them, they will pull a “Thelma and Louise”.  

  • Gustavo Corral

    Hi Jon, 
     Like you, I also have an affinity for older people : the quaint way they remember a past that never was and oh! the cozy times spent in 3rd grade with my librarian learning the Dewey decimal system. 
     Now I’m worried : I’m worried that the added benefits ( like medicare parts D, and reimbursements for all sorts of techy exams ) that we’ve given to senior citizens may not be sustainable. By “not sustainable”, I mean that current retirees may be getting a level of benefits far higher than we will be able to offer people who retire even in only 5 or 10 years. 
     Now as a society we are at a cross-roads : do we use our scarce resources to shore up the expenditures of retirees or do we invest in the future in the hope that the next generation will be able to grow us out of this mess ? 

  • Janetplanet555


    AND if you are childless, who is going to take care of you, Jon?  I am childless.  I have paid property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes to fund the education of other people’s children, pay into the retirement funds of other peoples’ children’s teachers, all the politicians and government workers who don’t pay into social security, people who collect disability payments from Social Security and Medicare who never even paid into the program, and welfare and medicaid payments.  I purchase my groceries at a store were I am one of a few customers who actually pay for my groceries with cash instead of “food stamps” and schlepp my food home on a bus while I watch the person who used a Link card load hers into a new SUV.  Single people get SCREWED over and over again by the government.  

    Now, let’s talk about the unemployment and underemployment of your children.  They have paid more for their college educations than I paid for my tiny condo in 1997 and they can’t find jobs because our generation cannot afford to retire.  It is to your children’s benefit to pay for my Social Security and Medicare so that I will retire and let them do my job.  That job turnover benefits industry with lower pay and benefits and the youth get a opportunity to enter the job market.

    Maybe that’s the best reason to get young people to pay into Social Security!

  • Janetplanet555

    Gustave:  You raise legitimate questions about what medical procedures and drugs Medicare should provide.  I hate to admit it, but my father had a hip replacement and an eye lift that were completely paid for by Medicare.  These procedures are not life saving and if you ask me should not be covered by Medicare.  The hip replacement was a complete butcher job by a Florida Medicare hack who no showed the first time after my dad fasted, spent a night in the hospital and was completely prepped.  To this day, we do not know why he didn’t show up.  A week later, the same thing happened except it was because the OR was taken for an emergency and the the third time he had the surgery.  Today, he hobbles worse than ever–his one hip is about 10 inches higher than the other and when he walks he limps awkwardly and barely keeps his balance.  He is going to be in a wheelchair/scooter within the next 5 years.

    He had the eye lift because his eyelid was drooping and affecting his vision.  The eye doctor has left him with a surprised look.  Total hack job.  

    I would love to know how many complaints there are against physicians in Florida because of the number of medicare patients.

  • jan

    Cosmetic surgery is not covered by medicare, Janetplanet. 

  • Ken

    I am 84 and depend on medicare and Social Security. I know for the long term changes will be necessary to keep the programs viable. What gripes me no end is connecting these programs to the debt. These programs have not contributed to the debt, in fact, without these programs the debt would have been a couple of trillion dollars more. The revenue for these programs paid by withold tax of lower and middle income people has been used to give wealthy people tax breaks. Politicians and pundits have to look at the real causes of the debt. Various tax loopholes reportedly cost the treasury well over a trillion dollars a year. Most capital gains are the result of inflation and not the result of increased value brought about by a particular investment. We have an awful lot of freeloaders getting special tax consideration. I would bet that a primary consideration of corporations, state and local governments and numerous civic and other organizations is  to find ways to get Federal government money. If people at all levels would vow to fund their programs and projects without going to the government for things they should do themselves the debt would be quickly manageable.

  • Mahepatel

    In other countries where they have joint family system, children take care of their parent and ALL their needs. Such system is not popular and almost non existent in USA.Therefore, Social security and Medicare are not luxury items that politicians can play with whenever it suits their purpose. Working people contributed towards it for older generations on social security. So there is nothing wrong for younger folks to contribute towards it. It is not a  ponzy scheme as mentioned by one republican presidential candidate. If unemployment is reduced to normal level then social security should have no problem because it will be financed by working folks. So instead of cutting social security and other benefits the focus should be on creating jobs. When middle class was strong and fully employed there were no issues on social security. Now that we have 1% rich who pay lower taxes and 99% struggling middle class and poor who are unemployed, we have a sudden focus on entitlements. Debt  was created by spending large amounts in the Iraq war, Medicare frauds and huge bail outs to Wall street firms.

  • HHH

    Oh yes Jon, put on the puppy dog face, look into their eyes and say Old people, I love you, I”ve always loved you, but here’s the deal, your getting yours so flush your children and your grand children, you’ll be gone anyways so why care if they die under the bridge starving. Your a real piece of work Jon. How about we run the system right and it will work for future generations too. You also agreed with Jeffery Immelt the CEO of GE when you interviewed him and bragged about how he moved the company to Ireland because they had a 3.5 percent tax rate, Did he forget to talk about the billions they take in military contracts and the 10′s of millions in fines they have paid for contract fraud or the 60 billion they got in the bail out, oh yes those no good rotten American taxes, how he hates them but boy he has his nose in the trough up to his ears sucking them up doesn’t he. Your living proof people will take any side if you pay them enough.

  • Vincedemattia

    There are a few things I thought a journalist like Mr. Greenfield would not have left out of this important report.  1. The point should be made that not only does the individual employee contribute to Social Security and Medicare, but his or her employer matches the funds and sends them in with the employees contributions. Secondly… isn’t it true that… all that money was supposed to be deposited and in interest bearing accounts. And, lastly… has any administration ever taken any of that money and used it for other (so-called) needs… and, if they did… was the money paid back to the Social Security and Medicare accounts from which they were (borrowed). All those billions of dollars earning interest and compounding all these years… should have been a huge number. You need to tell the people the answers to these questions. We Need to Know! P.S. You might want to consider mentioning the fact that one of the suggested solutions has actually suggested giving retiries all of their money at once and that those who advocate this (so-called) solution are really interested in pumping more money into the stock market, which is where, those folks believe… the retirees will have to put the money, whether it be in annuities or Mutual Funds or with money management. It is a recipe for disaster.  None of this was discussed in your program. Again… we Need To Know!

  • jan

    I went back and reviewed the guest list on Need to Know for the past 3 months.  Primarily it would appear that people from far right organizations such as AEI are the guest that talk about economics; sort of like Friday’s show which was dominated and controlled by Greenfield who has right wing credentials and Mr. Meacham, same thing.  The much smaller number of democrats and/or what right winger would define as liberal have been pretty much limited to social issues. 

    I’m going to point out that Bill Moyers is back and has a new website.     

  • Abc4

    I found the episode on retirement age voters in Florida quite
    interesting, yet disturbing.  How do
    avowed Republicans continue to support candidates who are bent on
    “changing” social security and medicare? (Paul Ryan)  It seems it is all about the power of
    propaganda.  If candidates blow enough
    hot air, then the true issue is obscured, and voters will vote against their
    own welfare.  Then Florida seniors are in
    for a full blown hurricane.

    Jon Meecham, whose talent I do appreciate, may be a
    contributor to the force of that hurricance. 
    In his wrap up sequence, he advocated that seniors warm up to the notion
    of “change” in social security and medicare, for the sake of future
    generations.  This was the thinking of
    Grover Norquist in his big push in the second Bush administration…to convince
    grandmothers that they could move social security to the stock market, and AND
    Well, that was a “change”, to be sure, but as we have seen
    with the volativity of the stock market, if grandma passed away during a stock
    crash, not only would there be no asset to pass on, but grandma would have had
    nothing to live on, and probably would have moved in with (and become a burden
    on) her family members.

    President Obama has already implemented “changes”
    by authorizing the payroll tax holiday, taking taxes from the social security
    system for the duration.  Even if funds
    are diverted from the general fund…the payroll tax holiday is only a small
    piece of legislation from becoming permanent, thereby killing social security
    in the subversive way of slow but steady starvation.

    Social security is funded until 2037, unless starved per
    above.  There is no bankruptcy as your
    program suggested…outputs exceed inputs. 
    “Changes” occured in the social security system in 1984
    (Reagan era) when FICA taxes doubled…to fix the baby boomer potential
    problems, resulting in a giant windfall of a savings account, a giant social
    security fund surplus, which the United States Treasury has enjoyed for
    decades.  Now the surplus is being drawn
    down, as intended, by the retirees who have for decades contributed to it.  Unfortunately, none of this appeared as an
    important factor in your show.

    As for future changes? 
    Social security is an easy fix…raise the retirement age again, raise
    taxes, or raise the ceiling.

    Medicare is another topic altogether.  Medicare does not provide too many services,
    recipients do not bankrupt the system. 
    In the United States we simply pay too much for healthcare.  Cost of healthcare rises more than 15%  each year, and has done so for a long
    time.  What other service or commodity
    rises at that rate through good times and financial bad times?  Medicare deductions from payroll cannot keep
    up with the hyer inflated rates of American health care.  We don’t even have the right to bargain for
    better Pharma rates through Medicare. 
    What we have is political impoverishment with regard to our healthcare.

    It is not really openly discussed, but big business does own
    our politicians, and it is getting even worse. (see Koch brothers in Wisconsin,
    casino owner funding Newt).  Big business
    is paying 31 cents per hour to Chinese slave labor.  Why would they want to continue to subsidize
    soc. security and medicare (pay one half of the FICA tax)?  THAT IS THE TRUE ISSUE, not that seniors need
    to accept change for the following generations.

    I expect much more information, and HONESTY in reporting from
    a PBS series…especially one which calls itself “NEED TO KNOW”.


    C. Carroll