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The young don't buy into propaganda of war between generations

Despite efforts to portray Social Security and Medicare as giveaways to undeserving seniors that rip off the young, some young people believe they must work with older people to make the programs work.

July 04, 2012|Michael Hiltzik

The idea that retirees are living high on the hog while our children starve sometimes comes dressed in more civil clothing. Consider a recent op-ed by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an eminent bioethicist and brother of Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor. Emanuel argues that many Social Security recipients are "quite well-to-do" and therefore perfectly able to divert some of their Social Security income to the care and feeding of the younger generation, especially children.

Emanuel's killer factoid is that the median income of married couples 65 to 69 is a healthy $61,000. Yet that's flagrantly misleading. Married couples constitute less than half of all those 65 to 69; among singles, the median income is a meager $20,400. And income drops sharply with age, presumably because most income sources become exhausted. For two-thirds of all elderly households, Social Security accounts for more than half of all income, and for one-third of those households, it provides 90%.

What the numbers show is that tens of millions of seniors are barely hanging on; to suggest that they're beneficiaries of a "huge transfer of wealth ... harming our children," in Emanuel's words, is to purvey a myth.

Countering such myths takes time and effort, and people like Lawson and Edwards are only getting started. The task won't be easy, for the myth makers are well-funded and fixed on the same target market.

For example, billionaire investor and deficit hawk Peter G. Peterson's charitable foundation has spent millions of dollars in recent years trying to inculcate college students via essay contests, social affairs and curricular materials with the idea that programs like Social Security and Medicare are sapping their patrimony.

But that's a fundamental untruth about these programs. They're not reflections of generational war, but expressions of a compact between generations based on shared responsibility for social welfare that extends back to Social Security's enactment in 1935 and forward into the future. The idea behind keeping seniors solvent and healthy is to allow them to live independently and liberate their children and grandchildren to make their own way.

"For me, the idea that this is generational warfare is preposterous," Edwards says. "Generational warfare is what happens at Thanksgiving across the dinner table. This is about individual security. I tell people this is the best deal you'll get in your lifetime, the best insurance you probably didn't know you had."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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