You know, there was a period of time when seniors had to choose between rent and prescription drugs," said President Bush during a March 14 panel discussion in Canandaigua, N.Y., about the new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement. "And that wasn't right in our country, and this bill I signed is taking care of that problem."
It was a compelling image the president invoked-millions of poor seniors forced to make painful choices with nowhere to turn for help-and it was one he and members of Congress regularly summoned in their campaign for the prescription-drug law, which piled about $8 trillion in unfunded liabilities onto future generations.
But during the same month as the president's talk in New York, a study from the Census Bureau completely undermined that powerful image. The study's conclusion: A quiet revolution in aging has occurred in this country over the last half-century, raising the quality of life for American seniors in almost every way imaginable. Seniors today are healthier, wealthier, and wiser than any previous generation could have envisioned.
Among the study's findings:
-The median net worth of Americans over 65 was $108,885 in 2000. Even excluding home equity, the typical senior had a much higher net worth than the typical American under 45 had. In 1950, 35 percent of seniors lived in poverty; in 2003, only 10 percent did.
-Median household income for seniors almost doubled between 1967 and 2003, growing in inflation-adjusted dollars from $12,882 to $23,787.
-Only about a quarter of seniors rated their overall health as fair or poor in 2000, and the percentage of seniors who chose one of those two descriptions for their health steadily dropped during the 1990s.
-Life expectancy rose from 68.2 years in 1950 to 76.9 years in 2003, with further increases predicted.
-Seventy-two percent of seniors had a high-school diploma in 2003, compared to 17 percent in 1950. Seventeen percent of seniors in 2003 had a bachelor's degree, while only 3 percent of their counterparts in 1950 had one.
-Nineteen percent of male seniors were in the work force in 2003, compared to 46 percent in 1950 (although the study didn't measure rates of voluntarism among seniors, an unfortunate omission). Most of those who left the labor force did so voluntarily, instead of being forced out by their companies or by poor health.
The political debate in this country has not caught up with these facts, but it needs to catch up soon. The population of seniors will likely more than double between 2000 and 2030, and the costs of the entitlement programs that serve them will explode. "The aging of our society will have profound consequences for our future, and in fact it is not a very distant future," noted Louis Kincannon, director of the Census Bureau.
Unless young families start having a lot more children very quickly, the only true, long-term way to keep Medicare and Social Security from swamping future workers is to increase the eligibility ages for those programs, especially Medicare. Polls, however, show that to be the single most unpopular reform option on the table.
As the Census study chronicled, society has been very good to seniors. The most important economic issue facing the United States is whether the relatively well-off senior population of the near future is prepared to be good to society in return.