As a guest recently on Sharon Lockhart’s KKFI program “Every Woman,” I stated that the Washington elite’s current assault on Social Security and Medicare is reminiscent of an earlier successful attempt to reduce welfare benefits for poor mothers and children. Both propaganda campaigns have entailed the promotion of narratives picked up and disseminated by the mainstream media.
Throughout the 1970s, neo-conservatives in think tanks and universities constructed and promoted a narrative of poor mothers needing public assistance as irresponsible, dependent, unmotivated, and inferior. By 1980, a U.S. president was inspired by these ideologically right wing social scientists (e.g., Charles Murray, George Gilder, and Irving Kristol) to declare that “welfare queens are driving their Cadillacs to the welfare office to pick up their checks.”
Although that statement has been attributed to Ronald Reagan, a Republican, it was left to Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to dish out some tough love to poor women and their children. His signature policy achievement is known, rather insultingly, as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). Even more insultingly, the legislation authorizing TANF is the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. In its title, this legislation belittles, defames, and dehumanizes poor mothers. Furthermore it has transformed public assistance for families with children from federal grants in aid to block grants, which places the fate of women in poverty in the hands of typically less empathetic and less resourced states.
So what have been the results of this punitive legislation? According to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, “Between 2000 and 2004, the number of children living in families with cash incomes below half the poverty line increased by 774,000” (see the full report at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=600). Although employment rose amongst poor women immediately following implementation of TANF, they remained “poor or near-poor, often face significant work expenses and material hardships and see only modest income growth over time.” Because TANF limits lifetime public assistance to five years and state welfare agencies became more anti-poor, jobless, single mothers who “do not receive cash assistance and who do not live with others who work or receive cash income support has increased.”
The elderly receiving Medicare and Social Security are now targeted for benefit reductions. As happened in the case of poor women and children, an “elderly as a problem and a burden” narrative replete with metaphors, symbols, myths, and misinformation has been developing for decades. Even liberal media such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR have been promoting and distributing this narrative, which subsumes a sub-narrative of “selfish old people” – especially Baby Boomers – overwhelming the medical system without any concern about the needs of younger people.
A case in point is an article by James Surowiecki entitled “Greedy Geezer?” which appeared in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2010/11/22/101122ta_talk_surowiecki). The article was preceded by the cartoon displayed at the beginning of this post. The title is obviously a question to which the author’s answer can be summarized as “yes, of course.” Through speculation, poor logic, lack of factual support, and over-generalization, Surowiecki reaches the conclusion that the 2010 mid-term election results were seniors “essentially saying ‘I’ve got mine – good luck getting yours.” Perhaps this is the attitude of some seniors. But it is not my attitude or the attitude of any seniors that I know, and I know a lot of seniors – both conservative and liberal seniors.
Ageism entails three basic elements: (1) stereotyping, (2) scapegoating, and (3) discrimination. Stereotypes of the elderly as dependent, a burden, selfish, and greedy have been appearing with increasing regularity in the media. Seniors are regularly scapegoated for budget deficits and national debt caused by a tax structure favoring the rich, several trillion dollars in war-related expenditures, bail outs of Wall Street moguls, and rip offs by the military, medical, financial, and agricultural complexes.
It is proposed that the elderly pay the price for incompetent and corrupt political leadership. Deficit reduction commissions are springing up all over the place. The commissions are discriminating against the elderly by recommending that the largest share of the cuts be aimed at senior programs while leaving the monied-elite untouched.