Duquesne University business professor James B. Burnham articulates a new theme of the conservative, corporate attack on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid in his March 3 Sunday Forum piece, "A Case of Generational Theft." In the same edition of the Post-Gazette, right-wing columnist Jack Kelly sings a similar song ("Reform Social Security"). Indeed, elders are taking the place of public school teachers as the prime drivers of the decline of the republic in the demonology of the right wing. Mr. Burnham's analysis, complete with a scientific-looking graph tracing real household median income, confuses coincidence with causality.
Mr. Burnham locates the cause of this generational larceny in the nefarious workings of the AARP. I hold no brief for that organization. I will not join it because I believe that its insurance business undermines its credibility as an advocacy organization for retired people.
The reason seniors have been able to defend their relatively modest, but decent position in the lower middle class is that they vote. Somehow Mr. Burnham imagines that the old folks have achieved their relatively stable status not from union-won defined benefit retirement plans and fiercely defended social programs, but from Grandma and Grandpap's picking the pockets of their grandchildren!
The cause of the tragic decline in the median income of young families is rooted in the increased inequality of wealth distribution derived from the powerful lobbying of corporate interests that has tilted the economic playing field in favor of the wealthiest Americans. It is rooted in the systematic attack on unions and workers' right to organize that historically provided a critical democratic counterbalance to the rule of wealth and privilege. It is rooted in an uncontrolled health care system that is weighted against coverage for the poor and the young and is destroying our economy by the ever-escalating costs it is imposing on us all.
Social Security not only provides a baseline income for the elderly (top benefit under $30,000), it protects the widow, the orphan and the disabled. If a young person is permanently injured in an automobile accident, Social Security is there for them. If a family loses its breadwinner, the widow and orphans receive a living and educational subsidy (something that explains Paul Ryan's reticence about attacking the hand that fed him and his family when his father died more than the imagined power of the AARP).
My mother's $1,200-a-month Social Security survivor's benefit allowed her to live an independent life in her paid-off home and freed her children of much of the weight of providing for her survival with dignity. That payment was an earned benefit for her but also a real benefit for her three children and our young families as well. My sister, born with cerebral palsy, through heroic determination and guts worked for 40 years as an occupational therapist, but if she had been unable to continue, Social Security would have been there for her.
Now we come to the core of why young families are struggling in this benighted economy that is so solicitous for the accumulation of wealth by the few with low capital gains tax rates and myriad loopholes that allow wealthy individuals and major corporations to pay little or no taxes.
Mr. Burnham mentions the plight of students suffering the overwhelming weight of college loan debt without any accounting of responsibility for the institution that feeds him by financially squeezing the young. How can a tenured professor at a university that costs students $30,000 to $40,000 a year to attend but pays the hundreds of young non-tenured part-time and temporary faculty $25,000 or less for a full-time teaching load equivalency without benefits point the finger of accusation at so-called "entitlements?" As someone who benefited from the ethical teachings of 20 years of Catholic education, I am ashamed that a Catholic institution uses its religious mission to block the just demand of its young non-tenured faculty for a union, for representational rights, in the name of the faith.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid do not represent an insurance Ponzi-scheme as the right likes to characterize it but a social commitment to the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the widow and the orphan rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets long before they found an American expression in the social democracy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Want a target for the declining economic situation of our young families, Mr. Burnham? Take a look at an economic system rigged for the accumulation of wealth at the top along with the inequities of a health care and educational system. Take a look at the real cause of "generational theft."
Charles McCollester is a retired professor of industrial and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the author of "The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio" and "Fighter With a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest."