POV: Programs more than numbers

The author is the president of the American Association of Retired Persons New York State.

The way some people talk in Washington you could get the idea that Social Security and Medicare are little more than numbers in a budget.

Yet for families in New York State and all over America, Social Security and Medicare have a deeper meaning: They are the very foundation of security in retirement.

Social Security and Medicare enable millions of older Americans to survive financially each month, after years of working hard and paying taxes to earn these protections. One day, younger people will count on these same pillars of security for their own independence and dignity in old age.

As lawmakers consider the U.S. budget, here are a couple numbers they should keep in mind: Half of America’s seniors get by on less than $20,000 a year. And here’s another: Typical seniors already spend nearly 20 percent of their incomes on health care, a percentage that continues to rise.

These facts argue against treating Social Security and Medicare as bargaining chips in a year-end political deal. Instead, we should be discussing responsible ways to preserve their vital protections for future generations.

A good place to start is by recognizing the essential role that Social Security and Medicare play in the lives of average Americans:

• Social Security provides more than half the household income for one out of two older Americans. In New York, 2.3 million residents received Social Security in 2011 and for the typical New Yorker it comprised 58 percent of their income.

• Social Security benefits keep 32 percent of New York’s seniors, approximately 800,000, above the poverty line. And benefits are modest, averaging under $15,000 a year.

• Medicare enables over 50 million older Americans and people with disabilities to receive affordable health care. In New York that’s 2.5 million people. Still, seniors have to pay $4,600 on average out of their own pockets for care each year. Without Medicare, many would have to spend thousands more for private coverage — if they could afford it at all.

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