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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Handout is just that no matter its name

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Like the Boy Scout who insists on helping an old lady cross the street when she wants to stay put, everyone seems determined to help out seniors, whether we need to do so or whether everyone can afford it.

The list of all the entitlements, benefits and freebies larded onto the elderly is way too long to publish here, other than to mention they include, according to AARP, deals on travel, financial services, entertainment, computers, gifts and insurance.

As if that weren't enough, Gov. Rod Blagojevich blackmails the Illinois legislature into giving seniors free bus and train rides. Seniors already get deeply discounted fares, but paying less than the price of a coffee latte for a bus ride apparently is asking too much of seniors.

Now comes Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) who wants to make 20 million seniors eligible for a handout under the $150 billion economic stimulus package working its way through Congress. The House, earlier passing its version of the bill, cruelly -- we're supposed to think -- excluded these seniors from receiving any largess.

Of course, that's a vast oversimplification. Here is the reality: The House-passed version would give rebates of $600 (individual) and $1,200 (couples) to all but the wealthiest taxpayers. People who don't pay taxes wouldn't get the rebates, which is why they are called rebates. Among those getting rebates are seniors whose taxable income isn't high enough to pay any taxes. One reason their income isn't high enough is that some or all of the Social Security payments that they receive are not taxable.

So, here come the oily politicians making it sound like the rebates discriminate against poor seniors.

Baucus' response is devious: Allow Social Security payments to be counted when determining whether a senior is receiving enough income for a rebate. Of course, the Social Security payments still won't be taxed fully or at all, because we don't want to "punish" seniors for receiving Social Security.

If this is confusing, look at it this way: Baucus wants to return to 20 million seniors the taxes that they never paid. My point is: As a senior, I'd gladly accept whatever you want to give me. But don't call it a rebate. Be honest; call it a gift, or a handout.

To carry out this self-serving charade, Baucus and his Senate cohorts unconscionably risk stalling or killing a rare, bipartisan House-Bush administration agreement that many Americans (but not necessarily I) believe is a desperately needed economic stimulus package. Baucus explains it all with a cliche: "America's seniors have worked hard all their lives, paid taxes all their lives, and they contribute to our economy today." To which an appropriate answer is: "Yeah, so what?" Plenty of Americans are working hard, paying their taxes and contributing to the economy.

In reality, this handout is the work of politicians of both parties who want to appear to be fair and compassionate, but who are afraid of offending a large bloc of voters who believe that they've got something coming to them.

As a senior, I invite Baucus to pander to someone else. Some seniors don't need or want this charity. Yes, seniors who actually need help should get help. But blanket handouts, like Blagojevich's free rides for every senior regardless of need, make no more sense than subsidizing left-handed golfers because they're, left-handed. The wrongness of Blagojevich's unwarranted generosity is so obvious that even the most politically savvy can't figure out what he thinks he gains by it.

By giving another freebie to seniors, Baucus and his pals are reinforcing the idea that seniors, simply because they have survived 65 or more years, deserve a cash gratuity. This is especially insidious as we approach a crisis in the funding of Medicare and Social Security. Seniors and would-be seniors have to know that some changes will have to be made. Medicare costs are so out of control that it's hard to imagine how the solution could not include some castor oil. So, what we don't need right now are the likes of Blagojevich and Baucus reinforcing the idea that seniors are entitled to every handout that wanders through our politicians' demagogic minds.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a whole group, seniors are the wealthiest category in the U.S. It's our middle-aged kids and younger who are busy working to pay for our subsidies who could use a few more breaks. They're raising the next generation and sacrificing for them. Enough already!

wferguson said...

I am a grandmother and I couldn't agree more with you in your "Handouts" column. I only wish you had remembered to mention that greedy, budget breaking Medicare Part D program. I think everyone knows the country can't afford the "rebates" but what does our pandering congress care about that. Fighting the Washington special interests includes saying "no" to handouts and freebies ourselves - everything from free transit to those bridges to nowhere.

Many years ago, I became my father's guardian after he suffered a debilitating stroke. I remember being amazed at all the senior discounts and freebies that he was offered. We always declined because he was very much able and willing to pay his own way.

We need means testing to assist those that need help and not have blanket costly programs and services directed towards a specific demographic.