A New Front in the War on Poverty

The Affordable Care Act will do for most Americans what Medicare did for seniors.

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Buried in Sunday’s Washington Post was a small notice of a study on senior citizens living in poverty. The numbers have plummeted from the late 1960s, according to a study of census data done by the Akron Beacon Journal.

27 percent of seniors were living in poverty more than 40 years ago, compared to only 9 percent today. There are 3.7 million seniors living in poverty today as compared to 5.2 million in 1969, while the number of seniors has more than doubled during that time, up to 40.6 million.

So who says President Lyndon Baines Johnson's War on Poverty was a failure?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

The reasons for this drastic reduction can be placed squarely on retirement programs like 401(k)s, Social Security and the establishment of Medicare in 1965. In addition, many continue to work post-65, many saw the tough times of the Depression and World War II and have been careful and frugal. 

Another important change that I was involved in back in the 70s working for Sen. Frank Church, who was Chairman of the Aging Committee, involved the capital gains tax on the sale of one’s home. Congress passed an exemption for seniors who sold their homes and downsized, saving them substantial sums from taxes on their primary nest egg. Prices of homes had gone up and this change was crucial for many seniors and is still important today.

But there are still too many Americans, both young and old, living in poverty. Too many are without jobs, too many have jobs that don’t pay enough to raise a family and the future of pensions and retirement savings is far from certain. A new Kaiser study even indicates that additional health expenses could raise the percentage of seniors in poverty up from 9 percent to 15 percent.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

And that is why the importance of the Affordable Care Act cannot be understated. Before Medicare, many seniors were one serious illness removed from bankruptcy. Today, the same is true for many Americans. The ACA, when it is fully implemented, will do much the same as Medicare to keep Americans out of poverty.

Here is what life was like before Medicare: The cost of health care for seniors kept many from having even basic hospital coverage. Only one in four had insurance that would cover 75 percent of a hospital stay, and half of all elderly Americans had no insurance at all. 

The point is that when we look back at American life in the pre-Johnson era, the pre-Medicare era, we faced a daunting problem. We did much to solve that problem for the vast majority of seniors. Now, with the ACA, we can do the same for most Americans.