Op-Ed: Placating 'The Greediest Generation'

Read Cynthia Tucker's piece, "Greatest Generation Becomes Greediest Generation"

The Social Security Administration will not make cost-of-living adjustments for seniors this year. But President Obama has proposed $250 for every Social Security recipient. Cynthia Tucker writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it's a move "to placate cranky seniors."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Last week, the Social Security Administration announced that there will be no cost-of-living adjustment to payments for seniors this year. That's the first time that's happened since that was introduced in 1975. The reason is that prices haven't gone up. There has been no inflation this past year. Even so, President Obama wants to send $250 to every Social Security recipient, and there's every reason to believe that Congress will go along. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker argues this is just an attempt to placate cranky seniors and wonders: When did the greatest generation become the greediest generation? So seniors, do you expect to receive an increase every year? Has that become an entitlement? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Cynthia Tucker joins us here in Studio 3A. And she writes columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where her article appeared last Thursday.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER, (Columnist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And we take the point on inflation of the greediest generation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Yes. Well, that was a rather provocative line I used because I was trying to make a point that federal spending has increased so much on seniors that they are, compared to children especially, relatively well-off, particularly when you consider their health care. I actually started thinking about this a lot over the summer, when there was so much controversy over health-care reform and seniors are the group most likely to be opposed to President Obama's health-care reform plans - although interestingly enough, they are the people who receive government-backed insurance.

And as I was watching this debate, and then most recently with the announcement that the president wants Congress to give seniors $250 tax because they won't get a cost-of-living adjustment from Social Security, I thought, well, wait a minute. Why is the federal government spending so much time pandering to seniors? I certainly know that there are some seniors who are strapped, but there are many more people in other age groups who are strapped.

CONAN: And well, as you noted, there are some seniors who live on this fixed income and, well, they may argue their expenses have gone up in the past year.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, fixed income is an interesting term. Fixed only means you are no longer working, so you cannot expect to get raises. You are no longer in the workforce. But your retirement income might be fixed at a relatively high rate. Fixed income doesn't mean that you are poor. And there are many, many workers who haven't gotten raises in a very long time either, so their incomes are also fixed. Again, I'm not arguing that there are not seniors who are hurting, but there are many people in other age groups - the unemployed - who are hurting more.

CONAN: Well, they're asking for more unemployment and extension of unemployment insurance, too, so that may well pass as well.

Ms. TUCKER: Yes, it may. But when did we get the idea that a cost-of- living adjustment should be automatic? The cost-of-living adjustment was put in place to account for inflation, to compensate for inflation.

CONAN: And in 1975, inflation was galloping and…

Ms. TUCKER: Exactly.

CONAN: …I'm afraid I remember.

Ms. TUCKER: But, if there is no inflation, there is no need for a cost-of-living adjustment.

CONAN: And so this has become what you call an entitlement, which a lot of people would take as a kind of a dirty word.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, entitlement has become a dirty word, interestingly enough. But the biggest entitlements are those that go to seniors, those that cost the most money. Medicare and Social Security are the biggest entitlement outlays in the federal budget. And again, I don't want seniors to get the impression that I begrudge them Medicare or Social Security. But I am concerned that we are becoming an upside-down culture. Government programs have essentially solved the problem of poverty among seniors. Social Security passed by in the '30s. Medicare passed by Lyndon Johnson's administration in 1965 gave senior citizens health care. That's wonderful. But now I think we need to start worrying about younger generations.

CONAN: And I wonder, what's been the reaction that you've received…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …since you wrote this piece last Thursday?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I posted it on my blog and my goodness, the comments have been searing. I didn't actually understand that there were so many seniors who read blog posts and who commented. But they're out there, they're very upset, many of them saying what you just suggested: Hey, my costs are going up. I saved my money. I put aside money in savings, but that was hit by the recession. My savings have decreased so, you know…

CONAN: And certainly not earning any interest.

Ms. TUCKER: …and not earning any interest, exactly, so what do you mean I don't need a cost-of-living adjustment?

CONAN: Well, let's hear from some of them; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's go to Bruce(ph). And Bruce with us from Visalia, California.

BRUCE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BRUCE: I think that the author is missing a very important point. I would keep the cost-of-living adjustment, and there's a very good reason why. She is defining inflation as price increases. And that's the way the law is written. But unfortunately, our federal government and the Federal Reserve system inflates our currency to the point where our purchasing power decreases every time they run the printing presses. So the real inflation that the government is sanctioning through the Federal Reserve is stealing purchasing power from seniors and everyone else in this country.

CONAN: Well, give us an example of how that works. What do you mean stealing your purchasing power?

BRUCE: Well, if you…

CONAN: If the prices for everything are more or less the same, up a little here, down a little there?

BRUCE: Well, prices are not always the same. When you inflate a currency by printing more dollars, the purchasing power of each individual dollar is lessened by the amount of dollars in circulation.

CONAN: And I'm asking you to give me an example of how that works if…

BRUCE: Oh, well, an example of how that works, it would…

CONAN: …milk is still $2.19 a quart.

BRUCE: OK, the constant value to measure dollars against would be the standard of gold. The ability to purchase a particular good with an ounce of gold has not changed since the turn of the century. And you can still buy the same amount of goods or services with an ounce of gold, but you try and do that with a dollar, ever since the dollar…

CONAN: I'm still not - you're talking gold. I don't think a lot of senior citizens are buying bars of gold.

BRUCE: Well, no. I'm not saying - you asked me for an example…

CONAN: Right.

BRUCE: …and I want to give you a constant value.

CONAN: I'm asking you what is costing you more money because the government's printing more money?

BRUCE: What is costing me more money?

CONAN: Yeah.

BRUCE: Well, just the ability to go purchase goods and services.

CONAN: But if they're the same price they were a year ago and you have the same amount of money, what's the difference?

BRUCE: Well, if my same amount of money is sitting in a bank, it is only drawing 1 percent in interest; I really don't have the latitude that I have in purchasing, do I?

CONAN: You have the same amount of money from the government as you had a year ago.

BRUCE: Pardon me?

CONAN: You have - the prices are the same, and you have the same amount of money from the government. What's the difference?

BRUCE: Well, the difference is I - well, I see your point. It's well-taken.

CONAN: OK. Thank you, Bruce.

BRUCE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. I assume you've got a bunch of responses like that, Cynthia Tucker.

Ms. TUCKER: I did. I did. You know, there is an argument going on among - I am not going to suggest that I am any expert on inflation and I - but I read enough columnists who are experts to know that there is some concern among some that there may be inflation eventually if the government keeps running up a huge deficit. But…

CONAN: And these cost-of-living adjustments lag behind the actual event.

Ms. TUCKER: Exactly. But it hasn't shown up yet in actual prices that people pay for things they actually need. I don't know about gold, but in gas prices or milk or a loaf of bread, inflation hasn't shown up. In fact, in some categories, prices have fallen. Not for a good reason - it's because of the recession. But we are not seeing inflation at the moment.

CONAN: Let's go next to Harold(ph). Harold with us from Oakland.

HAROLD (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

HAROLD: I'd like to remind people of - that some basic necessities and commodities have gone up tremendously. Fuel, for instance, they - realize three years ago, fuel was under $2. I mean, and then…

CONAN: Well, Harold, if…

HAROLD: …if you're talking about food, just in the recent history, dairy products around here - I don't know about where else in the country but around here, they went up 25 percent. Flour went up 15 - at least 15 percent. None of that's gone back down. So are you saying - and so you can do that a couple of years in a row and then - and the way they calculate the inflation, it leaves out important things like that. Now, to me…

CONAN: I - Harold…

HAROLD: …it's ridiculous to say that people are doing just as well as they were when these necessities are going up, you know? I mean, just on the face of this. It's patented, on the face of it. Prima facie.

Ms. TUCKER: I would certainly never suggest that people are doing well. The point is that most people are doing poorly in the recession, and there are folks still of working age who've been jobless for months and months and months who don't have Social Security, who don't have pensions, and they have no income coming in. And they are doing worse than seniors at the moment. I would also like to point out that fuel prices are actually down from their peak of a few years ago. Some food prices are still up, some are not. But the federal government factors in prices across the board, and across the board there is no inflation.

CONAN: And we can't speak to certain locales, I mean, it might be different…

HAROLD: But that's what I'm talking about - across the board. That's how they figure it out. But that doesn't include - that doesn't include these very absolute necessities.

CONAN: Like food and fuel? Yes, it does.

HAROLD: Right, but mixed in to the rest of them.

CONAN: Correct.

HAROLD: And so it waters down the things that are most important. If you've got to eat, if - or you're going to starve and your food's going up - you understand what I'm saying? And your rent - suppose your rent's going up too. I mean, rent's always going - you know - I mean, you can easily water down the necessities that seniors need by mixing it in with a whole bunch of other stuff. And the government does that because they don't want to spend money. They want to leave it. You know, if you just took fuel and food and a few other things that are essential to the survival of seniors, you better believe it will be justifying that - to give them a cost-of-living increase.

CONAN: Harold, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HAROLD: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Michael(ph) in Flushing.

Greedy generation? I'm a 63-year-old recipient of Social Security and I did not ask for the $250 payment and I don't want it. If there's no inflation, why increase the payout? Two hundred fifty dollars is insignificant to an individual. I want the government to save the 13 billion - that's the cost of the $250 payment across the board - and apply it to the deficit. So he says, hey, we're not so greedy. And I assume you got some responses like that, too.

Ms. TUCKER: I did. I did. I got a few from people who said that they hadn't requested the $250, which hasn't been passed yet. Let me be clear. This is an idea that President Obama is talking about, Congress is talking about. But because it has bipartisan support, I fully expect that Congress will issue these $250 checks to seniors. I did get a few responses from seniors saying, we didn't ask for this. I don't need this. And I'd rather the government keep the money and apply it to the deficit. Many more of the responses, however, were like Harold's, saying, what do you mean my cost haven't gone up? They have.

CONAN: Our guest is Cynthia Tucker on the Opinion Page this week. She wrote -she writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And on her blog, she wrote a piece last week called, "The Greatest Generation Becomes the Greediest Generation." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Marie(ph). Marie, from Jacksonville.

MARIE: Oh, yes. Hi. If I can just say this right, I think it's great, OK, that we're getting a cost of living - I'm sure there's a lot of seniors that can use it, OK? But I think it should go by income. I mean, there are so many people out of work and the cost-of-living increase has - I mean, wages have not gotten cost-of-living increases, I think, since the '80s. And I would - I should go at…

(Soundbite of click)

CONAN: Oh.

MARIE: …getting by, you know, really, but I would gladly give that $250 to somebody that's out of work and maybe can't collect unemployment for whatever reason. There's too many people right now hurting badly that I would rather see that $250 go to, and it should go by people's income. I mean, you know, in 1962, my husband and I - I'm 69 years old, OK - 1962, we bought a house in the suburbs for $10,000 in Levittown, Pennsylvania, OK ? My husband made $70 a week at - as a convenience store clerk, OK? Today, that same house goes for $200,000. Now do you think a convenience store clerk makes 20 times $70, which would be $1,400? No.

CONAN: I don't think so.

MARIE: You can't - there's just a disparity, you know, that's gradually creeped up to where people are working two, three jobs. They can't guide their kids, crime goes up, you know? I mean, give it to where it's needed the most, to the lowest-income people, OK?

CONAN: All right, Marie, thank you.

MARIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.

MARIE: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's Joan(ph) in Shawnee Mission, Kansas: When I heard about the proposed $250, I thought, why, since there's been no inflation? Then I thought about my 89-year-old dad, who will see an increase in his rent that will be much higher than $250. I can see it frightens him to think he may not have enough money, can't possibly go out and work anymore, and who wants to move at the age of 89? I would say the greediness is in those who seem blind to the needs of others.

And let's see if we can get one more caller in before we lose time. And this is Sulley(ph). Sulley, with us from Mystic, Connecticut.

SULLEY: Hi. You know, I'm on Social Security, but I have enough income on the other - on unearned income, so there is no reason why I should get $250 from the government. I think it should be paid to people who really need it. I - this entitlement mentality of the senior citizens is crazy. I'm a senior citizen myself.

CONAN: Why do you think they do it, Sulley?

SULLEY: Well, I think, you know, getting $250 to everybody who is on Social Security is the most ridiculous thing. I agree with this author of this article who say, you know what, stop crying, being a cry baby - just to come to the table and say, listen, if we can afford it, don't give us the money, give it to the poor person who needs the $250…

CONAN: Regardless of age…

SULLEY: …for the rent, for their food.

CONAN: All right.

SULLEY: Yeah. And I think there has to be some kind of adjustment depending upon how much a person makes, you know?

CONAN: Sulley…

SULLEY: I mean, (unintelligible).

CONAN: I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you off because we're losing time, but thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SULLEY: OK. Bye.

CONAN: And the reason, you suggest in your article, that this is likely to be approved by Congress is, well, old people vote.

Ms. TUCKER: They vote. I - more than anything else, I think that that accounts for the generosity that Congress and the presidential administrations lavish on the elderly. They are the most conscientious block of voters. And Congress wants them to keep voting for them.

CONAN: Cynthia Tucker, with us today in Studio 3A. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can find a link to her article at our Web site, go to npr.org/talk. Tomorrow, the cost of an appendectomy, for example, can vary by thousands of dollars, we'll look at why - insurance explained, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. And this TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington

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