Politics and Policy in Aging: A Political Scientist's Journey

By Binstock, Robert H. | Aging Today, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

Politics and Policy in Aging: A Political Scientist's Journey


Binstock, Robert H., Aging Today


For more than four decades, Robert H. Binstock has been a leading political scientist in gerontology. Now the Professor of Aging, Health and Society at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, he was awarded the American Society on Aging's (ASA) 2006 Hall of Fame Award at the association's recent conference in Anaheim, Calif. The honor is presented to an older ASA member for career-long achievements in advocacy and leadership. Following is a commentary written for Aging Today and based on Binstock's lecture at the awards ceremony.

In 1963, while a graduate student in political science at Harvard University, I was recruited by nearby Brandeis University to evaluate some nationwide demonstration projects on aging. I had no idea then that I was beginning a career-long journey in gerontology-a journey that has been richly rewarding.

I have used my political science background to study the political behavior of older people and old-age-based organizations. I have also employed political theory to understand and interpret the politics of aging, as well as the overall public policy processes affecting older Americans. In addition, I have participated directly in public policy processes as an applied political scientist, by directing a White House Task Force on Older Americans, shaping legislation that established the National Institute on Aging, amending the Older Americans Act, working on funding formulas with state units on aging, and developing the concept for the aging and disability resource centers launched as a federal initiative in 2003.

During my 43 years in aging, many changes have taken place. Perhaps the most important are those in the political contexts of policies on aging, because these changes seriously threaten the future well-being of older people.

COMPASSIONATE AGEISM

In the gerontological literature of 40 years ago, as well as in U.S. culture at large, elders were sweepingly characterized as poor, frail, dependent and deserving. These compassionate stereotypes of older people facilitated the construction of an old-age welfare state-from the New Deal's Social Security in 1935 through President Nixon's New Federalism in the 1970s-even though the dominant political ideology was not collectively oriented.

During the 1960s and 1970s, advocates for older adults identified just about every issue or problem affecting all or some elders. Most of these concerns became a governmental responsibility for action through nutrition programs, legal and supportive services, senior housing and home-repair programs, financial assistance with energy bills, special transportation, employment assistance and job protection, public insurance for private pensions, special mental health programs, leisure services, and on and on. Together with Social Security and Medicare, these programs 'helped moderate the risks of old age for millions of older Americans. As a consequence, the term golden years became a part of American culture.

Starting in 1978, though, the longstanding compassionate stereotypes of older individuals began to undergo an extraordinary reversal, as the costs of old-age benefit programs grew and became more widely known. New stereotypes, readily observed in popular culture, depicted elders as prosperous, hedonistic, politically powerful and selfish. The epithet greedy geezers was coined in the 1980s, and variations on this loaded term remain in use by some journalists today.

Older people became a scapegoat for a wide variety of problems perceived in American society, such as the plight of poor children and the high cost of healthcare. Economist Lester Thurow envisioned a future of sharp intergenerational conflict. "Class warfare," he declaimed, "is apt to be redefined as the young against the old rather than the poor against the rich."

MERCHANTS OF DOOM

Now, as the 76 million boomers are poised to enter the ranks of old age, the very programs that aid older Americans-especially Social Security and Medicare-are in danger. …

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