Academic journal article Generations

Old-Age Policies, Politics, and Ageism

Academic journal article Generations

Old-Age Policies, Politics, and Ageism

Article excerpt

A foundation for both positive benefits and negative stereotypes.

The impact of ageism in the public policy arena has had both positive and negative effects on older Americans. On the one hand, it has facilitated in the United States the construction of an old-age welfare state that has been very beneficial for older people. On the other hand, it has provided the foundation for negative stereotypes of older people and their political behavior.


From the enactment of Social security in 1935 through the late 19705, U.S. public policy issues concerning older people were framed by a compassionate ageism-the attribution of the same characteristics, status, and just deserts to a heterogeneous group that was artificially homogenized and labeled "the aged." The lowest levels of economic status, health, and functional capacities that could be found among older people became familiar as common denominators in public discourse (Neugarten, 1974). Elderly people tended to be seen as poor, frail, and dependent, as objects of discrimination, and above all as "deserving" (Kalish, 1979).

The stereotypes expressed through this ageism, unlike those of racism or sexism, were not wholly detrimental to the well-being of its objects, older people. Indeed, during five decades the American polity implemented the construct of compassionate ageism by creating many old-age government benefit programs, as well as by enacting laws against age discrimination. During the 19605 and 19705, just about even' issue or problem affecting some older people that could be identified by advocates for the elderly became a governmental responsibility. Programs were enacted to provide older Americans with health insurance; nutritional, legal, supportive, and leisure services; housing; home repair; energy assistance; transportation; help in getting jobs; protection against being fired from jobs; public insurance for employer-sponsored pensions; special mental health programs; and on and on. By the late 19705, if not earlier, American society had learned the catechism of compassionate ageism very well and had expressed it through a great many policies. Although many of the old-age policies enacted during that period made distinctions among older people in determining their eligibility for assistance (e.g., through low-income and asset tests for participation in Medicaid, public housing, and the energy assistance program), a number of them treated all older people exactly the same regardless of their personal circumstances. All people age 65 and older were entitled to an extra personal deduction in filing their federal income tax. The more than 90 percent of people in this age category who were eligible for Medicare received precisely the same benefits and paid precisely the same premiums in order to participate in the supplemental portion of the program, regardless of economic status. All people age 60 and older and their spouses were eligible for the supportive services and nutrition programs funded through the Older Americans Act.

Beginning in the late 19705, however, Congress began to revise some of the ageist features of policies on aging. Through a new legislative trend that has continued through today, policies on aging have been reformed incrementally to reflect the diverse economic and social characteristics of older people.

Starting in the late 19708, amendments to the Older Americans Act (OAA) began targeting funds for services programs to older people in the "greatest economic and social need" and to low-income minority elders. In addition, policy changes have permitted OAA programs to charge for supportive services (through "cost sharing") based on the income level of clients, and to accept "donations" from participants in congregate meal programs. As part of a package of 1983 Social security reforms to deal with an immediate crisis in financing benefit payments as well as anticipated future problems, the Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASi) benefits received by wealthier older people were made subject to federal income tax, but those of other OASI recipients were not. …

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