There is a crisis brewing in America. It has financial and moral implications that will impact our nation for generations to come. The problem? Too many baby boomers, too few babies.
Our economy, while currently growing at a solid pace and performing well by most standards, is headed for trouble. As the baby boomers head into retirement, they are leaving behind too few replacements. Declining birth rates and a high incidence of abortion are negatively skewing the worker/retiree ratio.
The net result of this is more retirees, fewer workers, and increased financial pressures for everyone. Medicare and Medicaid, programs on which millions of Americans rely, already take up an enormous portion of the federal budget (as much as $1 out of every five spent last year). And as the baby boomer generation begins turning 60 next year, the cost of those programs is set to increase exponentially. Any honest examination of federal entitlement programs reveals that it won’t be long before expenditures exceed receipts.
The burden of the impending funding crisis for Social Security and the federal health care programs falls heaviest on the younger generations. They are undoubtedly paying for benefits for others that they themselves will never receive. It does not take much imagination to anticipate that young workers, bending under the weight of supporting a disproportionate number of older retirees, will grow to resent them. Such feelings can result in profoundly negative implications for the frail elderly in the future.
America’s frail elderly are already at risk for abuse and exploitation. Apart from the unborn, there is no group that suffers more from the “disposable man” ethic that is the legacy of Roe v. Wade. All over America, our elders in long-term care institutions suffer from abuse and neglect. But the perpetrators are not only to be found in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Sadly, the largest group of perpetrators is to be found among the families of the victims.
A recent study by the National Research Council estimated that there are between one and two million cases of elder abuse in the U.S. The Senate Special Committee on Aging estimates that there may be as many as four times as many cases of elder abuse that go unreported. How much worse is the problem likely to become as respect for human life in our society decreases and the pressure on the young to care for the old increases?
Americans in search of a just society should seek to foster an honest and immediate debate over how we will care for our elderly, how much we are willing to spend in so doing, and how we can deal fairly with younger generations in the process. We need to ask ourselves how the utilitarian arguments that are increasingly being urged in the bio-medical arena impact the disabled and the frail elderly.
We need leaders in Washington and in the state houses of America, who are willing, if need be, to completely revamp the way in which we care for the elderly. Millions of lives literally hang in the balance. On these matters of life and death, political posturing and campaign contributions must not determine our course. Time is of the essence. Putting off until tomorrow the debate we need to have today will only limit our possible responses, and increase the likelihood that unplanned financial pressures will lead to unjust policies.
This week, the White House Conference on Aging, to which I am a delegate, is meeting in Washington. Mandated by law to meet every 10 years, this group of delegates and advocates has come together to develop and recommend to the President and to Congress policies that impact the sanctity and quality of our elders’ lives.
Hopefully the conversation beginning in Washington this week will result in policies that will not only solve our impending financial crisis, but also ensure that America’s elders are treated with the fairness and dignity they deserve.