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Fiscal cliff deal must protect Medicare, Social Security

Medicare

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 Maryland 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.

Here are a couple numbers that lawmakers considering cuts to these programs should keep in mind: Half of America's seniors get by on less than $20,000 a year. And 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 Marylanders:

•Social Security provides more than half the household income for one out of two older Americans. In Maryland, that's 627,752 people.

•Social Security benefits keep more than one in three seniors above the poverty line, including 64,726 older Marylanders. And benefits are modest, averaging under $15,000 a year. Without Social Security income, an additional 28 percent of older Marylanders, or 186,135 people, would fall into poverty.

•Social Security plays an important role in Maryland's economy. Social Security provided $11.9 billion in benefits to all Marylanders and $9.1 billion in benefits to Marylanders 65 and older in 2011.

•Medicare enables more than 50 million older Americans and people with disabilities to receive affordable health care. In Maryland, that's nearly 95 percent of older seniors, or 684,244 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.

Since early 2012, AARP has been encouraging a conversation about the long-term financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare, and how to keep these programs effective for the long haul. This effort, which we call "You've Earned a Say," has engaged millions of Americans — and they've made their feelings clear.

In a recent AARP poll, 91 percent of Americans ages 50 and older said Social Security was "critical" to the economic security of seniors, and 95 percent described Medicare as critical to health security for seniors.

The fact is, we are living in a time when retirement security has unraveled for many, due to a combination of trends. Private pensions are shrinking. Savings rates remain low. Home values have fallen. The cost of living continues to rise.

These realities make it unwise and even reckless to cut back Social Security and Medicare just to meet numerical targets in a budget deal. Rather, the economic pressures facing older Americans warrant an open, thoughtful discussion on ways to enhance retirement security and how to strengthen the bedrock programs that provide it.

This focus is critical not only for today's retirees and working Americans but for future generations. AARP will continue to remind our elected leaders of the importance of Social Security and Medicare in Maryland and communities all over the country.

Of course, budgets matter. But we should never forget their impact on the real people behind the numbers.

Hank Greenberg is AARP Maryland state director. His email is hgreenberg@aarp.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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