06/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Social Security, Ageism and the President's Fiscal Commission

Co-authored by Eric Kingson, Nancy Altman and Lori Hansen

The President's Fiscal Commission is off to a very bad start. And it hasn't even met!

The rhetoric of the President's choices to chair this important commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, endangers Social Security and suggests insensitivity to 40 million older Americans.

Even before all the members of the commission were chosen, Bowles went on record before the North Carolina Bankers' Association saying that if the Commission doesn't "mess with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security ... America is going to be a second-rate power" in his lifetime." Hardly the statement of an objective and impartial chair of a national commission.

His co-chair, Alan Simpson, gives ugly voice to harsh, ageist stereotypes, deriding older Americans as "greedy geezers." Here's how he described the future of the fiscal commission: "It'll be a bloodbath. Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn't affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60. This makes no sense. You've got to scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. Those people are lying... [They] don't care a whit about their grandchildren...not a whit."

The nation's serious long-term fiscal problems need to be addressed but will not be if the co-chairs consistently wrongly characterize Social Security as a fiscal drain and a cause of the nation's long-term structural deficit. As they should know, Social Security is forbidden by federal law to borrow and can pay benefits only if it has sufficient income and assets to cover the cost.

The historic enactment of health reform is a step in the right direction but plainly much remains to be done. Social Security's relatively modest long-run deficit also needs to be addressed. Fortunately, there are many reasonable, non-hysterical and non-ageist ways to do just that. Restoring the estate tax on assets in excess of $3.5 million and dedicating those revenues to Social Security eliminates about one-quarter of the projected shortfall. Gradually lifting the payroll tax cap so that, once again, 90 percent of earnings are subject to Social Security contributions eliminates three-tenths of the deficit. And these changes are good policy in and of themselves.

Far from being "greedy geezers" or "ungrateful dependents," the vast majority of older adults are - and want to remain - independent, contributing members of their families and of society. Social Security is central to these aspirations to maintain dignity in their later years.

That being so how perverse it sounds for the Obama Administration, so determined otherwise to be moderate and reasonable and inclusive and valuing of all, to simultaneously be providing a platform for attacks on this bulwark of middle-class security and, through, Mr. Simpson, demonizing of Americans who have contributed so much to make our country great. Social Security's success and its stability, especially in this uncertain economy, should be a cause of nationwide celebration on this its 75th anniversary.

Unfortunately, while neither mean-spirited nor intentional, evidence of insensitivity to seniors within the Administration is not restricted to the commission co-chairs. The President's primary and general election campaign websites listed 15 or so populations with a special stake in the presidential election - women, young adults, Hispanics, students, union members, religious groups - but not older adults. Where were they found? Under "Issues," as "Seniors and Social Security." And now the White House web site follows this same strange categorization.

What's wrong with that? For one thing, it is misleading. Yes, Social Security supports millions in retirement. But it also takes a burden off the backs of their children, directly supports millions of children who have lost parents and gives disability protection to working persons and their families.

Beginning with the rhetoric of the Fiscal Commission's co-chairs, the Administration needs to change the tone and correct the tilt of its current approach to Social Security and America's older adults. The President's voice is needed to clarify, not muddy the public's understanding of Social Security and the values on which it rests - reward for hard work and shared responsibility in caring for family and neighbors.

The 40 million Americans aged 65 and over are not, "issues," or "bundles of needs" to be ministered to. They have given much. Most want to continue to build stronger families, better communities and contribute to society. They love and care about their grandchildren. They need to hear, loud and clear, that their President supports Social Security and the values it promotes, for them, their children and grandchildren and America's future.

Eric Kingson, Professor of Social Work at Syracuse University, and Nancy Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security, are Co-Directors and Lori Hansen, Policy Director, of Social Security Works. The authors served on the Campaign's Retirement Security Advisory Committee and later on the Advisory Committee to the Social Security Administration Transition Team. All three served as staff for the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform, the "Greenspan Commission," and its members.