Elderly appear winners after budget dust settles


WASHINGTON -- This may come as a surprise after all the complaints in Congress about slashing Medicare spending, but the big winners from balancing the federal budget would be elderly Americans.

The average American age 65 and over gets $15,456 a year in federal benefits from Washington today. Under the Republicans' new plan, spending on Medicare would grow slower than today, but the average elderly American still would get over $17,000 when the budget is balanced in fiscal 2002. The elderly would get even more under President Clinton's plan.

"Where is the revolution? This is an acquiescence to the status quo," said Richard Jackson, a budget analyst who highlighted these findings in a study for the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan watchdog group devoted to ending deficits.

His study defined benefits the elderly receive as including Social Security, Medicare, the elderly's share of Medicaid, and other federal retirement programs as calculated by the Congressional Budget Office.

Spending on the elderly already is America's highest national priority, claiming 40 cents from every federal dollar spent today.

National defense, by contrast, gets 15 cents from each federal dollar; programs for children, about 7.5 cents and shrinking, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, another bipartisan anti-deficit research center.

Yet senior citizens would get an even bigger slice of the still-growing federal pie under the new GOP balanced-budget plan -- 43 cents of every federal dollar in 2002.

Under Mr. Clinton's alternative, the elderly's share of total spending would shrink slightly, to 39 percent, but only because Mr. Clinton would not cut the rest of the federal pie as deeply as the Republicans propose.

In sharp contrast, spending on all other government functions -- except for interest on the national debt -- would drop 16 percent per person, on average, by 2002, Mr. Jackson calculated.

"Recent reports suggest this is all about balancing the budget on the backs of the elderly," but that's not correct, said Carol Cox Wait, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The new GOP plan would slash $270 billion from Medicare's "projected" spending over the next seven years, but spending on the program still would grow from $178 billion today to $274 billion in 2002. That's a 6.4 percent annual rate of growth, down from 10 percent today.

Mr. Clinton proposes to trim Medicare's spending growth by less than half as much as the GOP proposal -- cutting $124 billion from it over seven years.

Meanwhile, he proposes to add new benefits for the elderly, including grants for home-and-community services for the disabled and for Alzheimer's victims, and eliminating the co-payment now required for mammograms.

"That's not to say that tough choices are not being made, particularly in the Republican plans," said Mr. Jackson, of the Concord Coalition. "These Medicare cuts may well be painful," he acknowledged, because rising health care costs generally mean senior citizens will have to sacrifice some services as their benefits fail to keep pace with inflation.

Yet that sacrifice must be weighed in context of far deeper cuts in federal spending on most other things. "Programs for children in the federal budget are teeny, tiny amounts of money," said Ms. Wait, of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

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