Samuelson: The Elderly are Better Off Than Advertised

When House Speaker John Boehner calls for trillions of dollars of spending cuts, the message is clear. Any deal to raise the federal debt ceiling must include significant savings in Social Security and Medicare benefits. Subsidizing the elderly is the biggest piece of federal spending (more than two-fifths of the total), but trimming benefits for well-off seniors isn't just budget arithmetic. It's also the right thing to do.

I have been urging higher eligibility ages and more means-testing for Social Security and Medicare for so long that I forget that many Americans still accept the outdated and propagandistic notion that old age automatically impoverishes people. Asks one reader: Who are these "well-off" elderly you keep writing about? The suggestion is that they are figments of my imagination, invented to justify harsh cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare on the needy.

Just the opposite. We see every day that many people in their 60s and older live comfortably — and still would if they received a little less in Social Security and paid a little more for Medicare. The trouble is that what's intuitively obvious becomes lost in the political debate; it's overwhelmed by selective and self-serving statistics that cast almost everyone over 65 as being on the edge of insolvency. The result: Government over-subsidizes the affluent elderly. It transfers resources from the struggling young to the secure old.

To correct the stereotype, consult a government publication called "Older Americans 2010, Key Indicators of Well-Being." It reminds us that Americans live longer and have gotten healthier. In 1930, life expectancy was 59.2 years at birth and 12.2 years at 65; in 2006, those figures were 77.7 and 18.5. Since 1981, death rates for heart disease and stroke have fallen by half for those 65 and over. In this population, about three-quarters rate their own health as "good" or "excellent."

"Most older people are enjoying greater prosperity than any previous generation," the report says. Consider:

l From 1959 to 2007, the proportion of the 65-plus population with incomes under the government's poverty line ($12,968 for a couple in 2009) dropped from 35.2 percent to 9.7 percent, which was half the poverty rate for children under 18 (18 percent).

l  The proportion of elderly living in the "high income" group — defined as four times the poverty line, or almost $52,000 for a couple in 2009 — rose from 18.4 percent in 1980 to 30.6 percent in 2007.

l  In 2007, the median net worth (that is, assets minus debts) of 65-plus households was $237,000, about twice the amount for households aged 45 to 54. Among 65-plus married couples, median net worth was $385,000.

Indeed, half the nation's wealth is owned by people 55 and older (a third of the adult population), report Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane of the Urban Institute. The old feel more secure. The National Opinion Research Center regularly surveys Americans about their financial "satisfaction." In 2010, 82 percent of those 65 and over said they were "satisfied" or "more or less" satisfied. For those under 65, the comparable figure was 66 percent.

Older Americans also fared better in the recession, a 2009 Pew survey found. Among those 18 to 49, 68 percent reported that they "cut back spending" in the past year; for those 65-plus, that was 36 percent.

Social Security and Medicare explain much of this well-being. For millions of older Americans, they are essential; among the poorest two-fifths, Social Security provides 83 percent of their income. But among the richest fifth, its share is only 18 percent.

The problems of old age (chronic illness, outliving savings, loneliness) are real, but age by itself is not an indicator of need. The blanket defense of existing Social Security and Medicare isn't "liberal" or "progressive." It's simply a political expedient with ruinous consequences. It enlarges budget deficits and forces an unfair share of adjustment — higher taxes, lower spending — on workers and other government programs. This is the morality of the ballot box.

People do not lose their obligations to the larger society by turning 65. We need to refocus these programs on their original purposes. Social Security was intended to prevent poverty, not finance recipients' extra cable channels. Medicare provides peace of mind as well as health insurance; wealthier recipients can afford to pay more for their peace of mind. Burden-sharing needs to include the elderly. This is the crux of the budget problem.

Facing it is both a moral and financial imperative. With the 2012 election looming, major overhauls of these programs seem unlikely. Still, more modest changes (slow increases in eligibility ages, added taxation of Social Security benefits, costlier Medicare for upscale beneficiaries) could produce significant savings. If even these are absent, the meaning will be plain: Old stereotypes continue to trump new realities.