I was in the canned soup aisle at the supermarket the other day. A white-haired couple was studying prices. The man, with a friendly face and a paunch a loose shirt couldn’t conceal—I’ll call him Jack—smiled. “If you look, you can find some real good buys.” His wife, with rosy cheeks and a pleasant smile suggesting a woman who loved baking cookies for her grandchildren—I’ll call her Mary—held up a handful of coupons. “And of course,” she said, “you want to check the newspaper and the fliers out front for these.”

“Have to,” Jack explained. “We’re on a fixed income.” Mary took a can from the shelf then put it back. “They claim there’s no inflation,” she said, “but we can’t seem to afford the groceries we were buying just a few years ago.” Jack shook his head. “And gas. Wow!”

I acknowledged that Americans aren’t too thrilled with four-dollar gas. And food prices often carry sticker shock. But at least Jack and Mary could depend on their monthly Social Security. “Don’t bet on it,” said Mary. “They want to take our Social Security away.” I asked who they were and why they wanted to do it.

“Them,” Jack answered. “The socialists who ran up all that government debt and want to balance the budget on the backs of seniors. They talk about the deficit and how they have to cut Social Security or it’ll run out.” Mary clucked her tongue. “So to keep it from running out, they want to take it away. And Medicare, too. Now how’s that supposed to work?”

“Actually, a republican proposed radically changing Medicare,” I responded. “More responsible people want to look at Social Security and Medicare, but I’m under the impression that cuts would come from folks who are well off. Say with big investment and pension incomes like a hundred thousand dollars or more. Their Social Security might be reduced by ten or fifteen percent. They might pay more for Medicare coverage, too. But obviously they’d still be in great shape.”

Mary found chicken noodle soup on special and put half-a-dozen cans in her cart. “Well,” she said. “Jack and I aren’t in that league. Not even close. But don’t think for a minute they won’t come after our benefits, too.” Jack nodded in agreement. “Seen that AARP ad on TV? Where they tell you about all the money being spent on those crazy programs like studying when caterpillars sleep or building a museum all about sewing needles? Cut that stuff.”

“But,” I replied, “reasonable changes wouldn’t affect your benefits. We have to at least talk about Social Security and Medicare if we’re going to make any sense of reducing the debt. That and defense are where the real money are. And that AARP ad? I saw it, and it doesn’t address the real issues at all. It’s just scare tactics to prevent any discussion.”

Mary shook her head. “Well, we’re scared. We want to cut the debt as much as anyone, but all’s I can say is, just keep the government out of Social Security and Medicare, and we’ll be all right.” Jack touched his index finger lightly to my chest. “And don’t you worry about the younger generation,” he advised. “They play the lottery just like we do, and you can bet on this. Someone’s always gonna win.”

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  1. Ron Laupheimer on July 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Good Blog. Lots to think about and to discuss.

    I need to talk to you about your comments because I agree with Jack and Mary–I thought everyone’s benefits for both Social Security and Medicare are going to be cut under the Republicans’ plans. The wealthy are not going to be hurt by such “changes” (i.e., cuts) since they have replacement options, but the poor and middle class seniors will be severely damaged by these cuts.

    Just like Jack and Mary, I am for cutting the debt. I want to see really DEEP cuts in the Defense budget (including bringing our troops home from the three wars we are currently engaging in) and foreign aid before one starts to discuss cutting SS and Medicare benefits. We need to spend money here in the United States (helping seniors, the poor and most importantly, creating meaningful jobs) instead of around the globe. Unfortunately, that just is not likely based on the current mood of Congress and our President.

    • David on July 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      Ron: In no way am I suggesting that the answer is across-the-board cuts in Social Security. That would be arrogant and destructive. But we need to be willing to discuss changes that make sense, such as reducing the benefits of people who are quite well off. In this regard, it’s interesting how many people struggling to make ends meet oppose raising taxes on the wealthy. They fear that once the door has been opened, they, too, will face higher taxes. This represents scare taxes by the rich, who will never suffer financially. As to looking at our defense budget and bringing (the vast majority of) our troops back from the Middle, I agree.

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