Academic journal article Health and Social Work

The Role of the Government in "A Society for All Ages."

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

The Role of the Government in "A Society for All Ages."

Article excerpt

For 1999's National Health Line articles, Sharon Keigher has adopted the theme of the United Nations International Year of Older Persons, "Towards a Society for All Ages" The UN, as many social gerontology groups around the world also wish to do, wishes to promote and celebrate the ideal of older people becoming integrated into their societies, being viewed as a mainstream rather than as a marginal presence.

In the spirit of this declaration, it is instructive to juxtapose the current U.S. policy debate about the future of social security against the idea of "a society for all ages" Much irony lies in such an exercise because, as difficult as it may seem to those favoring maintenance of the universal, defined-benefit, intergenerational program that we currently have in place, those promoting the privatization of pension and health programs for elderly people see their objectives in much the same light. Because, to privatizers, the heart of mainstream society lies in families and the free market, they believe we can better integrate elderly people into society by reducing their dependence on government.

In particular, improved circumstances in the lives of many elderly people have privatizers believing that we can lessen government's central role in continuing to promote their well-being. The argument goes on to stipulate that, as a result of the key role social security itself has played in this trend, we can now reintroduce private sector mechanisms to promote economic opportunity and security among elderly people. Social security as we have known it was appropriate to "its time" (1935 to perhaps the early 1980s, in privatizers' view), but today it can and should move beyond its publicness and its paternalism. In short, in the views of many conservatives, substantial numbers of older people can "graduate into the private sector" In so doing, they become part of a (private) society for all ages.

The charge to liberals and progressives is not to allow the debate over the future of social security to be constructed in this manner. Specifically, the role of social insurance in U.S. life cannot be recast as dated, aberrational, and not in keeping with core American values about society and security. Whereas privatizers seek to portray social security as a prime example of public sector excess because benefits are now going to well-off elderly people, advocates must point to social security's unparalleled success in reducing poverty among elderly people. Whereas privatizers bemoan the alleged paternalism and lack of choice associated with these federal programs, advocates must remind decision makers that for decades more than 90 percent of the public has unwaveringly stated that they want either "the same" or "more" resources devoted to social security (Page, 1999). Moreover, the public would choose tax increases over benefit cuts if those were the only options available. Where privatizers would place the fate and fortunes of middle-class elderly people in the marketplace and those of low-income elderly people in "first-tier" or public assistance programs, advocates must make clear that social security prevents poverty and maintains income by incorporating all eligible beneficiaries into a single unitary and mildly redistributive system.

In short, the charge to those on the left in the emerging public debate on social security (and Medicare) is to reinforce and reinvigorate the place of major social insurance programs as legitimate, effective, popular, and established. "Towards a society for all ages" must continue to include a central role for government as well as for families and the market.


Given the historical realities surrounding social security, it is remarkable that privatization has today assumed such a prominent place on the menu of social security options. Three interrelated developments have made possible the ascendancy of private alternatives to social security: population imagery, policy institutionalization, and political ideology. …

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