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Amid War Talk, Everyday Needs Face Neglect
12 September 2002
The public prayers are finished, the saturation coverage wrung out, the documentaries shelved in history's library, awaiting time's critique.
America wakes today to the usual clatter, the humdrum of workday worries punctuated by the presidential beating of war drums.
It is hard to remember when some other rhythm was heard. War is replacing remembrance, even as the nation seems dazed and divided by the speed with which an old enemy, Iraq, has re-emerged.
We are told we must engage in a permanent, global war. Yet most of us are asked to pay no price, bear no burden. The homefront remains a disengaged place. In this place, the sense of national purpose that sprang from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, finds its opposite in national neglect of everything else.
This is nothing like World War II, when women worked in the factories. When men who remained behind were willing conscripts for civil defense. When sacrifice was asked, and freely made.
In this year since the terrorists struck, the everyday concerns of average Americans have been pushed aside. Not because of a deliberate plan to dedicate ourselves to some larger purpose. But because of the deliberate scheme of public officials to avoid responsibility.
The federal government's ledgers have gone from black to alarming red. Surpluses that were once supposed to finance the onrushing retirement of the Baby Boom generation have disappeared, replaced by recurring deficits projected to total $229 billion over the next four years.
The price of war? Not really. Spending related to the attacks of Sept. 11 accounts for about 10 percent of the loss of previously anticipated surpluses, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. Tax cuts, the revenue drain from a slow economy and higher interest payments on the growing national debt also are to blame.
The cries of workers whose retirement savings were looted by corporate crooks or decimated by stock market losses were heard, briefly, above the din of war talk. Yet Congress is now busy diluting even the pallid pension-protection measures lawmakers introduced in the spring. Thanks, lobbyists.
Meanwhile, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., the agency that insures the old defined-benefit pensions that are meant to give workers a guaranteed, steady income in retirement, reports a record jump in the number of private pension plans that are underfunded. That is, they do not currently have assets sufficient to pay promised benefits. In 2000, 87 plans reported they were underfunded. In 2001, that tripled to 261. Stock market losses and low interest on investments are the chief culprits.
And what of today's retirees?
They are struck, again, by the blow of HMOs pulling out of Medicare. Or they are stuck paying higher charges to those HMOs that remain. Next year an estimated 200,000 elderly people will lose HMO coverage, bringing to 2.4 million the number dropped since 1998. The managed-care industry was promoted as the answer to Medicare's every problem. The answer has proved wrong. No one comes forward with another.
Even the stooped grandmothers, with their tales of splitting pills in two so as to afford their prescriptions, have gotten the official brush-off. Prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries is another priority pushed down the list.
By year's end, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates, some 2.2 million Americans who were thrown out of jobs by the terrorist attack, or by the economic doldrums that preceded and now follow it, are expected to run out of unemployment benefits before finding work. During the recession of the early 1990s, Congress moved four times to make sure benefits kept flowing to laid-off workers. So far in this downturn it has acted only once, and only grudgingly.
Perhaps we are at a juncture of history where there can be one, and only one, priority - national security. But no one has explained this to us, or asked for perseverence on all others.
No one has come right out and said forget about your standard of living, your retirement hopes, your ability to pay for drugs you need to stay alive. When this week's tears dry, it is time to look clearly at this failure, and demand an explanation - or action.