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Where We Stand

Let's Restore the Middle Class

More have fallen into poverty by lack of jobs, increased health care costs

As you read this column, a "super-committee" of the Congress — six Republicans and six Democrats — is hard at work in Washington. Its job is to find ways to reduce the federal deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion between 2012 and 2021.

This is a worthwhile goal. We need to address our nation's long-term fiscal problems. They affect all of us — Republicans, Democrats, independents and, most important, our children and grandchildren. How we address these problems will determine what their future will be.

See also: 5 ways to trim the federal deficit.

That future will not be very bright if they are drowning in the red ink of budget deficits and a soaring national debt. But neither their future nor ours will be very bright if health care is unaffordable, or if there is no opportunity to attain long-term financial security.

That's why this is about much more than reducing the deficit. It's about what kind of country we want to be.

Our primary goal must be to restore prosperity to the middle class. A prosperous middle class has been the chief engine of growth in the economy for more than a century. While middle-class families prospered, low-income families were able to move up the economic ladder — to financial security and a better future.

But over the last generation, more and more of the middle class have fallen into poverty — pulled down by a lack of job opportunities, rising health care costs, inadequate savings and stagnant wages. Nor have incomes grown enough to offset increasing family burdens associated with child care and caring for aging parents.

Middle-class families cope by working longer, delaying retirement, relying on double incomes, reducing their standard of living, relying more on government programs to help them make ends meet and accumulating more debt.

This is taking a serious toll. Most Americans are reaching their 60s with so much debt that they can't afford to retire. In fact, working-age adults now make up 56.7 percent of the poor, defined by the Census Bureau as 2010 income under $22,113 for a family of four. In these challenging times, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have become increasingly important for middle-class families — especially for security in retirement.

Cutting these benefits — by increasing Medicare's eligibility age, for example, or forcing higher Medicare premiums — is exactly the wrong approach. Imposing these cuts, as many political leaders now propose, would force millions of older Americans out of the middle class and into poverty.

We are fighting — and we must all fight — to make sure that doesn't happen. To restore prosperity to the middle class, we need a four-part strategy:

1. Restore middle-class jobs.

2. Strengthen Social Security and increase retirement savings.

3. Slow the growth of health care costs and make Medicare sustainable.

4. Increase revenue for public investments to restore prosperity.

If we focus on restoring prosperity to the middle class, we will get our economy going again, put people back to work, increase the revenue needed to fund the government and reduce the deficit.

This will not happen overnight. It will take time and political courage. But it must be done. Failure to act will only put the American dream of a better life for ourselves, our children and grandchildren further out of reach.

Also of interest: Boomers face a savings deficit. >>

Tell A. Barry Rand what you think. Send him an email at CEO@aarp.org.

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