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Social Security, Medicare Are Not Welfare

Excluding benefits for the wealthy could undermine support for programs

The following letter to the editor appeared in The Washington Post on May 19, 2011.

Regarding Robert J. Samuelson’s May 16 column, “The Affluent Elderly”: Social Security and Medicare are not welfare programs. They are earned benefits that older Americans have contributed to over decades of hard work, a crucial distinction that Mr. Samuelson overlooked.

The minority of seniors who are wealthy also contributed to these programs throughout their working lives, pay higher taxes in retirement to support them — and get proportionately less back in return. Premiums for Medicare Part B already are pegged to income as well.

A means test for their earned benefits would erode the popular support that has sustained these programs and made them so effective in helping older households. Making Social Security more like welfare would surely lead to weaker benefits — and a growing burden on young people to support struggling elders.

Of course, our nation needs to address its fiscal challenge. But policies must be fair and sensible. No one group should be singled out. The typical senior gets by on a modest income of less than $25,000 a year, so let's avoid caricatures.

John Rother is executive vice president of AARP.

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