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September 13, 2011 4:20 PM We know how to reduce poverty among seniors

By Steve Benen

Relying on the new Census data, Suzy Khimm has a great item this afternoon, showing in five charts just how drastic the effects of the Great Recession have been. The images are nothing short of brutal.

There was one image, in particular, though, that I wanted to flag for a tangential reason.

This chart from the Census Bureau notes the differences in poverty rates among age groups over the last half-century. The red line shows poverty among those 65 and older; the blue line shows minors; and the yellow line shows those 18 to 64. You’ll notice that by the end of the Clinton era, there was a noticeable drop in poverty rates, especially among children, while over the last decade, conditions have deteriorated for those under 64.

But among seniors, poverty rates have been declining steadily for decades, and as of 2010, despite growing poverty throughout the economy, Khimm noted, “[O]lder Americans are even less likely to be in poverty than they were during the start of the recession…. [T]he poverty rate for seniors is at a record low: in 2009, it was at 8.9 percent, and it’s remained essentially flat since then.”

This isn’t an accident and it’s not a fluke. Indeed, note that on the left side of the chart, as of a half-century ago, those most likely to be in poverty were seniors.

So what happened? Social Security and Medicare happened. These pillars of modern American life have brought a degree of stability and economic security to millions of older people who’ve left the workforce.

And yet, nearly every Republican member of Congress this year voted to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. Of the two leading Republican presidential candidates, one wants to privatize Social Security, while the other wants to see Social Security disbanded and sent to the states.

We know poverty was well past crisis levels for older Americans not too long ago, and we know exactly what worked to bring those rates down. And yet, as the GOP has become radicalized, the threats to Medicare and Social Security have never been so severe.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Peter C on September 13, 2011 4:27 PM:

    I'm sorry but sending Social Security to the states is the stupidest idea I've heard all year. I've worked in five different states so far but the state I retire in has to provide for me???? that.will.never.work.

  • kevo on September 13, 2011 4:31 PM:

    I would hope more Americans besides me have noticed all of the Republican presidential candidates and all the Republican Congressional leadership would gladly trade their kingdoms for a horse?

    We are being economically suffocated by the profiteering Republican party members in the House (read Issa et al.) and Republican obstructionists in the Senate (read McConnell, DeMint et al.)!

    What a nihilistic crowd the Republican party has become! -Kevo

  • DAY on September 13, 2011 4:42 PM:

    Perhaps I have been mistaken, but I was led to believe that "the elderly" was the most reliable voting bloc.

    Perhaps I will stand corrected, in 2012. . .

  • flyonthewall on September 13, 2011 4:44 PM:

    Steve, you may want to look at your heading. Who or how?

  • Andy Olsen on September 13, 2011 4:47 PM:

    Well, Social Security and Medicare happened but, also, wages for working Americans have also been under relentless downward pressure. (which is no accident).

  • Anonymous on September 13, 2011 4:48 PM:

    @Peter C-good point. I imagine you would receive five checks at reduced levels instead of one from the state you chose to retire in. Then you would probably have to file 5 tax returns for each state, even if you would not owe taxes. Let's see, 5 checks to process and 5 returns to process, sounds like a government job creater to me.

  • zandru on September 13, 2011 4:49 PM:

    Fox Geezer Syndrome

    Well, notice how many tea-baggers are elderly - the group with the fewest members in poverty. Thanks to SS and Medicare, apparently many of them can no longer even imagine what poverty would be like.

    Old people appear to be a credulous group. If something is on the teevie and calls itself "news", it's true. If it calls itself "fair & balanced", then it is. They're suckers for loud-voiced confidence men like Hannity, Beck, O'Really, etc.

    Thanks to their Fox habit, it appears they no longer realize that SS and Medicare are programs of the Federal government. Maybe it's some kind of private, personalized pension, eh? At any rate, their relative affluence is due to their own, individual, personal efforts. Obviously.

  • Tuffy on September 13, 2011 5:20 PM:

    Feed the elderly to the under 18's.

  • Mark on September 13, 2011 5:40 PM:

    The democratic party has sort of protected SS and Medicare from republicans. In the future, maybe not so much. We finally see the consequences of corporate rule with placing SS in their hands, the increasing poverty of the young, the downward spiral on wages and the reduction of the supports for the middle class. I don't see an end to it. Welcome to the new middle ages.

  • rrk1 on September 13, 2011 6:04 PM:

    Both my parents had miniscule pensions, certainly not enough to live on. SS and Medicare gave them a livable existence in their later years. My father didn't retire until he was 76. My mother worked until 73. After they retired, I contributed beyond their SS, and pensions, and that gave them a dignified, but far from luxurious, life. Without SS and Medicare I can't imagine what life for them or for me, as an only child, would have been like.

    I was able to retire at 59, took SS at 62, and Medicare at 65. Thanks to my life-long history of work and this safety net, I too am enjoying a decent life. So far. Every American should be entitled, yes entitled, to such 'golden' years.

    The absolute lack of communal concern on the part of so-called Christians on the right is beyond astounding. The wealth of the 0.1% is obscene, and if we were really a democracy we would reign it in, as we have in the past. Our system of government is fine. Our electoral system is shattered. Until we reform the latter, the former will continue to deteriorate.

    Captcha is off its meds again.

  • James M on September 13, 2011 8:47 PM:

    I once studied historical poverty rates for a paper in grad school. I was shocked by what until I found. Up until World War 2 you could describe elderly people with 1 word: poor! Senior citizens where basically destitute unless they had well-off family members they could rely on.

    Howvever, as the article states, after the advent of Social Security poverty rates among the elderly plummeted. Why on earth would polticians of any stripe want to plunge the masses of senior citizens back into poverty? Does the GOP think that Oliver Twist is a model for the good society?

    I too would live to avoid violent metaphors, but these people have to be stopped. Otherwise, the U.S. will start to fall so far behind the other advanced countries (and even emerging ones) that we may never be able to catch up again.

  • James M on September 13, 2011 8:51 PM:

    (Same post with fewer typos!)

    I once studied historical poverty rates for a paper in grad school. I was shocked by what I found. Up until World War 2 you could describe elderly people with 1 word: poor! Senior citizens were basically destitute unless they had well-off family members they could rely on.

    However, as the article states, after the advent of Social Security poverty rates among the elderly plummeted. Why on earth would polticians of any stripe want to plunge the masses of senior citizens back into poverty? Does the GOP think that Oliver Twist is a model for the good society?

    I too would like to avoid violent metaphors, but these people have to be stopped. Otherwise, the U.S. will start to fall so far behind the other advanced countries (and even emerging ones) that we may never be able to catch up again.

  • a on September 13, 2011 9:06 PM:

    "There will be much wailing and gnashing of the teeth in the press and across the blogs in the next few days over these poverty numbers. And I warn you now that almost all of the commentary will simply be wrong. Anyone, anyone at all, be they Nobel Laureate, economics professor, newspaper editorial writer or simple blogger who tries to compare the poverty levels of the 1960s with those of today without adjusting for the above will just be wrong: plain, flat out, wrong."

    (http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2011/09/13/the-new-us-poverty-numbers-everyone-just-everyone-gets-this-wrong/)

    Steve doesn't disappoint.

  • Eman on September 13, 2011 10:07 PM:

    Can someone please notify the DNC to make a commercial out of the above post than just air it about 2 months before the election. I just can't imagine anyone over the age of 65 voting to keep these clowns in office or jeopardizing there own financial stability.

  • exlibra on September 13, 2011 10:19 PM:

    You’ll notice that by the end of the Clinton era, there was a noticeable drop in poverty rates, especially among children, while over the last decade, conditions have deteriorated for those under 64. -- Steve Benen

    I *also* notice that, while all poverty levels dropped under Clinton (compared to his immediate predecessors), it was that RINO, Gerald Ford, who has *an even better score*, on both childhood and adult poverty rates. Ie, Clinton beats Ford on seniors, *only*. Who'd a thunk?

    And, if Medicare is one of the factors responsible for seniors' better fate then, perhaps, we ought to have Medicare for all?

    That is, if Craptcha allows it. It seems even more bat-shit insane today than the Repub leadership. 7th try (the first I'm willing to take a risk on) says "salt Notwelln". As if I didn't know it already.

  • Anonymous on September 14, 2011 1:52 AM:

    Apparently we're also forgetting LBJ's Great Society programs, which, according to the chart, seem to have been attended by a sharper drop in poverty rates among the population measured (

  • John McGrath on September 14, 2011 8:09 AM:

    Obama is the problem too. He's a moderate Republican so he wants to preserve Social Security by diminishing it rather than eliminating it. Of course he has top take this position since his main priority is to find more money for a never ending big bank bailout scheme. Plus he wants big contributions from Wall Street to his campaign.

    Obama ain't the kind of change I can believe in.

  • zandru on September 14, 2011 9:20 AM:

    What? No "Republican Point of View"?!

    We're all taking the reliably liberal, New Testament Christian POV here. A Republican would look at those figures and say

    This shows how times are tough now, and the old people aren't stepping up to share in the suffering. Old people are living in luxury on their Socialized Security and their Obama-Medicare while their grandchildren and children are hurting. It's time to cut the cushy bennies the elderly are sucking out of the economy - and give the money to the Job Creators: those patriotic folks earning over $1million a year!

    If you don't know your enemy, you can't fight them.

  • Kid Charles on September 14, 2011 3:10 PM:

    Once again you completely ignore Obama's efforts to "reform" (i.e. weaken) SS and Medicare, as if only the Republicans are to blame. Yes the Republicans are worse than Democrats, they are always worse. But they only are capable of being that bad because Obama has shifted the debate in their direction, allowing them to shift even further to the right. Do yourself a favor and take off your partisan blinders to get a good, honest look at the situation.

  • MT on September 14, 2011 3:11 PM:

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