With poverty rates spinning perilously out of control in the United States, it’s time to send an unmistakable message to Congress and the White House as they prepare to resume the ongoing obsession with the deficit: End the silence on poverty, don’t make it worse by cuts to Social Security or Medicare and address a principal cause of poverty with a permanent fix to our dysfunctional health care system.
In a week in which a shocking new report on U.S. life expectancy rates was published and a high-profile pre-inauguration forum on poverty is being held in Washington, D.C., it’s a good time to draw the links between income, health care and perhaps the two most effective anti-poverty programs ever enacted in the United States: Social Security and Medicare.
U.S. Census Bureau data puts the official poverty rate at 15%, 46 million people, and at 22% for children younger than 18. Some have speculated the real number is two to three times that amount.
Not that you would notice listening to the debates inside the Beltway, where too many politicians are focused on spending cuts and not addressing the daily shortages of food, shelter, health care and jobs faced by a large swath of our nation.
It’s one reason why nationally syndicated broadcaster Tavis Smiley is hosting a major forum, Vision for a New America. A Future Without Poverty, being broadcast on CSPAN Thursday night in Washington.
Nurses see the correlation between low incomes and deteriorating health status every day in hospitals and clinics across the United States.
A report last week released by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine found the United States ranked last in life expectancies among 17 affluent countries. All the others have some form of a national health care system. No gold medals for us in this international competition, except in how much we spend and waste on health care as a result of our profit-focused, private system.
Sadly, the Affordable Care Act has not eradicated the problem, especially when it comes to rising health care costs.
Rising health care costs alone contribute to two-thirds of personal bankruptcies and a myriad of the health woes nurses witness regularly.
Nurses see the effects of poverty in premature and low-weight babies. Poverty causes widespread nutrition problems, from hunger and malnutrition, that can lead to disease and even organ failure. They see children with high levels of stress and anxiety, heart attacks in younger and younger men, rampant unaddressed mental health problems and emotional disorders and scores of patients who routinely skip needed medical care because of the cost until they end up in emergency rooms with major untreated diseases that may be too late to heal.
They see patients like the widowed woman in a Midwest state whose diabetes led to foot and leg wounds that became severe because she could not afford constant treatment. Finally admitted to a hospital, she faced the "Sophie’s Choice" of amputation or lengthy, more expensive long-term care. She chose amputation because it was cheaper. No, that’s not a story out of the Middle Ages or a Civil War battlefield, it’s modern-day America.
Permanent disability would not have been needed had she been able to wait a few more years. The NRC/Institute of Medicine study found the United States catching up to other countries only when people become seniors. Because of Medicare.
When signing the Medicare law in 1965, President Johnson cited the long history in the United States of “bill after bill (being) introduced to help older citizens meet the often crushing and always rising cost of disease and crippling illness.”
Before Medicare, barely half of seniors had medical coverage; within five years 97% did.
A similar story can be told about Social Security. Before that law was enacted in 1935, only 15% of workers had a private pension plan and many American seniors were mired in poverty, entirely dependent on their sons and daughters.
Now, reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security provides two-thirds of the income for recipients older than 65 and more than 90% for one-third of seniors. Only 10% of seniors are below the official poverty level, without Social Security, more than half would be.
This is the environment in which the “deficit scolds,” as economist Paul Krugman calls them, are targeting Social Security and Medicare.
It is the working poor who must work longer and be thrown back into poverty if Social Security benefits are cut. In particular women, who historically earned less than men and built less of an income base that determines amounts of benefits, would be most harmed by cuts such as raising the eligibility age or reducing the COLA.
The proposal, floated by President Obama and others to change the Social Security COLA formula to a “chained” Consumer Price Index, could cut monthly benefits for a typical single woman by $56 at age 80, says the National Women’s Law Center.
A comprehensive program to combat poverty in America is long overdue. It should start by insisting on no cuts in Social Security or Medicare and move on to a permanent fix of our health care system by upgrading Medicare with more funding, ending the creeping privatization and expanding it to cover everyone.
This article originally appeared on Alternet.
RoseAnn DeMoro is executive director of National Nurses United, and a presenter at the panel, Vision for a New America. A Future Without Poverty, which will be telecast on C-SPAN at 6:30 p.m. EST Jan. 17 and also can be viewed on this live stream, http://www.ustream.tv/visionforanewamerica.