But Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions and former research and program director of the Black Congressional Caucus, warns that ethnic elders and advocates should not let down their guard and assume that the proposals are dead. Although the plan did not receive the supermajority required to signal strong consensus, an 11-to-7 majority did vote to approve it. And even some commission members who rejected the report said the president should consider it as a template for change when he proposes his budget for the New Year.
New America Media’s Paul Kleyman interviewed Rockeymoore by e-mail about the commission and its majority plan.
Kleyman: What are key takeaway points for ethnic elders around the country?
Rockeymoore: Seniors— especially ethnic elders— should be forewarned that the issue of federal deficit reduction is not going away. The administration and Congress, with Republicans and Democrats on board, are likely to attempt to build on the various elements proposed in the plan.
Following the commission’s vote, President Obama said he would consider some of the panel’s proposals when he develops budget and priorities for the coming year. The president asked members of both parties for a “commitment to progress as we work to lift this burden from the shoulders of future generations.”
Indeed, ethnic elders and their advocates should examine any plan to reduce the deficit through the lens of whether it helps them or their children and grandchildren. The commission’s unbalanced and fiscally reckless plan, titled “The Moment of Truth,” failed present and future generations on multiple fronts.
For instance, a plan that was supposed to find ways to reduce the deficit actually proposed a decrease in tax rates for the wealthy. That tax cut would have significantly offset the relatively modest revenue increases included in the proposal.
The plan also laid the burden on middle- and working-class Americans through cuts to important social programs. Its proposals to reduce Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age and by cutting the annual cost of living adjustment would have a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color, which rely heavily on Social Security for income support in old age. Ethnic elders are also the least likely to have any other sources of support in retirement.
Much of the discussion has been around reducing spending on entitlement programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid. Would reducing benefits in these programs help control long-term health costs?
Rockeymoore: It is ironic that most of our policy leaders are ignoring the forest for the trees. A key to long-term reductions in health costs lies in primary prevention. Health care expenses will decrease when people are free from expensive chronic diseases. Many will be free from expensive chronic disease when they exercise more, eat healthier foods, and refrain from smoking.
The health-care reform bill included significant investments in public health, but what the nation needs is a wellness insurance program that provides support to people as they seek to adopt healthy behaviors.
Additionally, everyone knows that our current system of health care (even after reform) is highly inefficient. There are several ways to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies, and one of the most effective is to implement a public option that enables people to get affordable care. It would compete with profit-driven health-care providers and help to keep their costs down and quality of care accountable.
Buried in the plan’s recommendations were caps on Medicare and Medicaid spending. Since Medicaid is the nation’s major source of coverage for things like long-term care, how might such a cap affect seniors?
Rockeymoore: Proposals to cap Medicaid payments for long-term care are the equivalent of death panels for the poor. What happens to older adults who need assistance after the cap is reached? Would they be left to fend for themselves or rely on charity assistance, if family is not available for them? We must be careful to consider the effect on real people when we craft proposals to reduce deficits and the debt.
Also, they proposed that Medicare have a new $550 deductible and a 20 percent co-payment for hospital and doctor care. That would only go down to 5 percent after people had paid $7,500 a year out of pocket, and it would not include direct costs that seniors have for prescription drugs. Those costs could be a major barrier to care for many ethnic elders.
The debt commission's co-chairs conceded that Social Security is not part of the federal debt, but their final plan recommended major changes to the program anyhow, such as some tax increases and benefits cuts, primarily through increasing the full retirement age to 69. What’s your view of these recommendations?
Rockeymoore: The President gave the commission an inappropriate mandate when they were allowed to consider Social Security in the context of debt reduction. Therefore, it is not surprising that their resulting proposals were misguided and ineffective for meeting the income-security needs of the American public.
There are ways to restore solvency to Social Security over 75 years without resorting to dramatic benefit cuts that harm older adults generally and people of color especially.
Everyone knows that raising the retirement age transfers accumulated Social Security wealth away from people of color, the poor and blue-collar workers with labor-intensive jobs to wealthier whites and white-collar workers. This is because the latter have longer life expectancies and will live long enough to access Social Security benefits at a later age while also drawing benefits for a longer time.
The commission proposed raising the full-retirement age eventually to 69 and increasing the early-retirement age from the current 62 to 63. That might not sound like much, but it could impose a severe burden on vulnerable people.
Didn’t the commission also suggest creating a hardship exemption for those who are unable to retire at later ages?
Rockeymoore: Yes, but any such exemption would likely discriminate against those without lawyers, the poor and people of color—[all categories that overlap]. It would likely be difficult to qualify, [and] the exemption [would] become more a way to control program costs than a way to legitimately cover those who need early retirement.
It is unconscionable (and revealing) that the commission members proposed such devastating cuts to be shouldered by vulnerable populations, while also proposing reductions in the tax rates for our wealthiest corporations and individuals. Given the peculiar juxtaposition of elements within their plan, the final proposal of the president’s deficit commission deserved to be defeated.
What has the role of the national media been in informing the public about the debate?
Rockeymoore: The national media’s role has been particularly disturbing in its coverage of the debt-reduction debate. It has been completely irresponsible, unfair and unbalanced. Not only has the mainstream media excluded the voices of well-respected yet dissenting experts on this issue, [but] talk show hosts, commentators and “reporters” have themselves asserted misinformation and biased statements of fact, evidently in an effort to sound like informed observers.
A quick review of the facts illustrates that even some of our most revered newspapers and television stations actually helped to frame the debate in a manner that supported the objectives of fiscal extremists who are not working in the best interests of average Americans.
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