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William Rivers Pitt: Beneath the Bottom of the Barrel

It is a national disgrace that any old person is forced to rummage through garbage for a few extra pennies to survive.

Have you ever wondered what’s under the bottom of the barrel? I found out on Tuesday morning, when I cracked open the fetid wasteland that used to be the Washington Post. There, in the Editorials section, was an article titled “Senior Citizens’ Financial Woes Are Exaggerated,” written by something called Charles Lane.

The timing was interesting. Just as I read that headline, I heard the sound of clinking and clanking coming from the front of my house. I knew what it was immediately: one of the Can People was making her daily pass through my recycling bins. Years ago, the town I live in provided every home with a pair of large blue bins for residents to properly separate and store their recyclables for collection. Every Tuesday afternoon, a big yellow truck rumbles by to empty them. All week long, my neighbors and I fill these bins with paper, plastic, cans and bottles, and every day, the Can People come by to pick the bins over and collect anything worth five cents at the redemption center in the supermarket down the hill. More often than not, they push battered shopping carts to hold what they can find, but sometimes they have only a garbage bag slung over their shoulder to carry the load.

There are no young people doing this, nor even middle-aged people. The Can People are old men and women, stooped, wearing worn-out clothes and fraying shoes as they rattle through my refuse with gnarled, arthritic hands. Some are White, some are Asian, some are Black; can-collection, like poverty, knows no ethnic boundaries. I wave to them when I see them, but they seldom respond, either because their eyesight is too poor to make me out as I stand on my porch like a lord, or because they are too ashamed to acknowledge the fact that I see them, and thus see what it is they must do to survive.

When I heard the clinking and clanking on Tuesday morning, I remembered a brace of ginger ale cans I’d neglected to bring outside. Hurriedly, I tossed them into a bag and brought them to my porch. She was bent into the blue bin to the waist, and when she reared up at the sound of me, there was fear in her eyes. Maybe she thought I was going to shoo her away. Maybe that kind of thing happens a lot. I came to the railing, extended the bag of cans to her, and she took them without a word. Her face was a delta, a map of time itself, and she could not bring herself to meet my eye. She placed the bag of cans in her shopping cart, and I watched as she clattered her way down the sidewalk to the next set of bins.

When she was out of sight, I went back inside to read what Charles Lane had to say about how easy old people have it in America. He began with this:

Now that Paul Ryan, the author of a major proposal to overhaul Medicare, is going to be on the Republican ticket, the fall presidential campaign shapes up as a battle over the federal government’s obligations to senior citizens. Before it begins, I hereby declare that I admire and like the elderly. My parents are elderly. I myself hope to be elderly someday, and to remain that way for a long time. But I do not feel sorry for the elderly as a group, and neither should you.

In particular, you should not let an exaggerated portrayal of their economic vulnerability – the “Mediscare” campaign that Democrats have run in the past and are dusting off again – unduly affect your thinking about entitlement policy.

“Entitlement,” Mr. Lane? Did they not teach you the definition of words in your time at Harvard and Yale? If something has been paid for with decades of hard labor, it is not an “entitlement.” It is a justly deserved return on a very long investment.

An exaggerated portrayal of their economic vulnerability? Is it even possible to exaggerate the economic vulnerability of the elderly in America? To a person, they have to deal with at least one physical ailment, if not a multitude of them, and all in a nation where health care and prescription medicines are wildly expensive commodities. They are no longer employed, and so have no employer-provided health insurance, but only the small financial protection they paid for by investing in the social safety net with every paycheck they earned. A very large majority of America’s oldest citizens are required to squeeze every penny until Abraham screams just to survive.


Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.

The core of Mr. Lane’s argument is a muddle of questionable statistics and broad assumptions, culminating in a concluding paragraph as obnoxious as it is astonishing:

Sooner or later, politicians are going to have to treat older voters not as potential victims but as secure and fortunate citizens, who can and should contribute their fair share to resolving the country’s fiscal predicament. In other words, to treat them as what they are.

Notice how Lane uses the Occupy Movement’s rhetoric with that line about how elderly people “can and should contribute their fair share to resolving the country’s fiscal predicament”? That’s right, you ghoul…don’t tax the rich. Don’t tax the bankers or Wall Street. Don’t touch the grotesquely bloated “defense” budget. Instead, let’s tap the most vulnerable among us to be fodder for the wheat thresher of your callous, bottomless conservative greed. Yes, let’s “treat them as what they are,” just another juicy target.

I suppose I should not be surprised. After all, it was Charles Lane who said, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head and critically wounded, that Rep. Giffords would denounce union workers in Wisconsin if only she “could speak normally.”

But see, that’s the thing. Once upon a time, ruthless conservative lickspittles like Lane would only whisper jokes about Gabby Giffords getting shot, and about old people being ripe plums for the picking, into their sleeves. They’re not even bothering to hide their viciousness any more, and now that Paul Ryan has joined Mitt Romney on the Republican presidential ticket, this is the kind of argument we can look forward to. After all, it is Mr. Ryan who has built his career on a plan to annihilate Medicare, all the while defending the “defense” budget to the knife. All Mr. Lane has done with his pestiferous little missive is carry some water for Mr. Ryan. Welcome to Republican priorities, 21st century-style.

It is a national disgrace that any old person is forced to rummage through garbage for a few extra pennies to survive. The fact that millions of elderly people tremble on the cusp of economic calamity every single day, after they have fought our wars and served our peace and built our country in the decades they bent their backs to their work, is nothing more than simple, shameful fact. That the safety net they spent their lives paying for is under a full frontal assault from the Republican right should give anyone planning to live past the age of 65 more than a moment of pause. Mr. Lane thinks the elderly have it too good, an argument that is beyond contempt, but this is the thinking we are required to contend with in an age when people like Paul Ryan are actually taken seriously.

May you live a long, long life, Mr. Lane. May you grow very, very old…and when you are grubbing for cans in someone else’s garbage, may you remember your own words, and know a moment of shame.

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