A Program for Combating Poverty — Stop the Cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Expand Medicare to All

A comprehensive program to combat poverty in America is long overdue.

AlterNetJanuary 17, 2013

With poverty rates spinning perilously out of control in the U.S., it’s time to send an unmistakable message to Congress and the White House as they prepare to resume the ongoing obsession with the deficit: End the silence on poverty, don’t make poverty worse by make cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and address a principle cause of poverty with a permanent fix to our dysfunctional healthcare system..

In a week in which a shocking new report on U.S. life expectancy rates was published, which has a disproportionate impact on the poor, and a high profile pre-inauguration forum on poverty is behind held Thursday night in Washington, this is a good time to draw the links between income, healthcare, and Social Security and Medicare, perhaps the two most effective anti-poverty programs ever enacted in the U.S.

Census Bureau data puts the official poverty rate at 15 percent, 46 million people, and at 22 percent for children under 18.  Some have speculated the real number is two to three times that amount.

Not that you would notice listening to the debates inside the Beltway where too many politicians are focused on spending cuts, not addressing the daily shortages of  food, shelter, healthcare, and jobs faced by a large swath of our nation.

It’s one reason why nationally syndicated broadcaster Tavis Smiley is hosting a major forum, “Vision for a New America. A Future Without Poverty,” being broadcast on CSPAN Thursday night in Washington.

Nurses see the correlation of low incomes and deteriorating health status every day in hospitals and clinics across the U.S.

Consequences that are evident in a report last week by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine which found the U.S. ranked last in life expectancies among 17 affluent countries. All the others have some form of a national healthcare system. No gold medals for us in this international competition, except in how much we spend and waste on health care as a result of our profit-focused private system.

Sadly, the Affordable Care Act has not eradicated the problem, especially when it comes to rising healthcare costs.

that alone contribute to two-thirds of personal bankruptcies and a myriad of the health woes nurses witness regularly.

Nurses see the effects in premature and low weight babies and other widespread nutrition problems from hunger and malnutrition that can lead to disease and even organ failure. They see children with high levels of stress and anxiety, heart attacks in younger and younger men, rampant unaddressed mental health problems and emotional disorders, and scores of patients who routinely skip needed medical care because of the cost until they end up in emergency rooms with major untreated diseases that may then be too late to heal.

Patients like the widowed woman in a Midwest state whose diabetes led to foot and leg wounds that became severe because she could not afford constant treatment. Finally admitted to a hospital, she faced the Sophie’s Choice of amputation or lengthy, more expensive long term care. She chose amputation because it was cheaper. No that’s not a story out of the Middle Ages or a Civil War battlefield, it’s modern day America.

Permanent disability would not have been needed had she been able to wait a few more years. The NRC/Institute of Medicine study found the U.S. catching up to other countries only when people are later in life. Because of Medicare.

Upon signing the Medicare law in 1965, President Johnson cited the long history in the U.S. of “bill after bill (being)  introduced to help older citizens meet the often crushing and always rising cost of disease and crippling illness.”

Before Medicare, barely half of seniors had medical coverage, Within five years,97 percent did.

A similar story can be told about Social Security. Before that law was enacted in 1935, only 15 percent of workers had private pension plans, and many American seniors were mired in poverty totally dependent on their sons and daughters.

Now, reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security provides two-thirds of the income for recipients over 65, and more than 90 percent for one-third of seniors.  Only 10 percent of seniors are below the official poverty level, without Social Security more than half would be.

That’s the context in which the “deficit scolds,” as economist Paul Krugman calls them, are targeting Social Security and Medicare.

It is the working poor who must work longer and those who would be thrown back into poverty, especially women who have historically earned less than men and built less of an income base that determines amounts of benefits, who would be most harmed by such cuts as raising the eligibility age or slashing benefits.

The proposal, floated by President Obama and others to shift Social Security benefits to a “chained” Consumer Price Index by itself could cut monthly benefits for a typical single woman by $56 at age 80, says the National Women’s Law Center.

A comprehensive program to combat poverty in America is long overdue. It should start by insisting on no cuts in Social Security or Medicare, and move on to a permanent fix of our healthcare system by upgrading Medicare with full funding and an end to the creeping privatization, and expanding it to cover everyone.

RoseAnn DeMoro is executive director of National Nurses United, and a presenter at the panel, “Vision for a New America. A Future Without Poverty,” which will be telecast on CSPAN at 6:30 p.m. EST January 17 and can also be viewed on this live stream, http://www.ustream.tv/visionforanewamerica.

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