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Glenn Beck: For and against high life expectancy

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 16:32 EDT
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Part of me really doesn’t want to discourage Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann from continuing to hit the road and tell their largely elderly constituents that they need to be “weaned off” “government” funded programs like Social Security and Medicare—the teabaggers may not be the smartest people on the planet, but I’m sure people who begrudge every penny like they do noticed that Social Security and Medicare was paid directly by them from their payroll taxes and therefore the money they’re getting now is their money. And even if they really are too dumb to see that, they are still nasty, selfish people who may want funding cut to everyone else, but god damn they are keeping theirs. They’re Real Americans®. They deserve it. Unlike those “other” folks with shady birth certificates. I’m just not convinced telling the elderly teabaggers to give up an important income stream or their health care benefits is going to work out well.

But yesterday, I was combing through Media Matters’ video archive of the past week to find some clips of wingnuts lying about health care reform (this is surprisingly easy to do, though actually listening to this crap is physically painful), and I stopped on this video.

MM flagged it because Beck made the outrageous claim that insuring more people would lower their life expectancy, because people are really dying when they’re living and stuff. But the health insurance crack doesn’t even begin to touch the levels of crazy deception in this video. Beck is trying to argue that we need to get rid of Social Security. (Again, good luck with that.)

And to do this, he points to the low life expectancies prior to Social Security (59.2 years) and how dramatically it climbed after Social Security was implemented in 1935. It now stands at 77.5. That’s 18 years longer. That’s a lot of Christmases with the grandkids. This is supposed to be Beck’s argument against Social Security? Because from where I’m sitting, linking life expectancy and Social Security is a great argument for it.

Beck’s argument is, unsurprisingly, specious. He’s arguing that rising life expectancies are a bad thing when it comes to Social Security, because the age you started to draw it in 1935 was higher than the actual life expectancy, and so rising life expectancies means it’s going bankrupt. This game has been played before, so I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel. But the idea that Social Security was never intended to pay out is a flat-out lie. To hear Beck tell it, there weren’t many 65-year-olds running around in 1935. But life expectancy numbers are taken from the population as a whole. They include babies who die in the cradle, car accident victims, people who die of AIDS at 35, murder victims of 18, people who get cancer in their mid-30s and die, etc. One reason life expectancy numbers have shot up so dramatically is that the number of people who die young has gone down, in no small part due to better medical care, and other innovations like seat belts and frankly, condoms. Oh yeah, and vaccines.* In 1935, if you made it to 60, your chance of making it to 65 were actually pretty fucking good. They had old people in the 30s, I promise you. Perhaps you have some family pictures to verify this. Or you could call your grandparents, though that conversation could be awkward. “Grandma, when you were a kid, were there old people? Why do I ask? Just curious. Love ya’!” In fact, the link I provided explains this, saying that while life expectancy overall is 77 years, someone who is 60 now can expect to live to 82.

Which doesn’t mean that improved health for elderly people isn’t a major factor in increased life expectancy. Then, as now, most people died old and life expectancy was largely governed by how old old people were when they died. It’s safe to suggest that the number of years Social Security paid out in the 30s and 40s was shorter than now. Does this mean Social Security was some dumbfuck idea cooked up by a bunch of stupid liberals with no foresight?

Actually, it means the opposite. It means Social Security was a wild success. I’m not demographer or doctor of medicine, but I’m smart enough to realize that a lot of reasons elderly people die way before their time is that they’re poor. They don’t live in healthy conditions, they don’t eat right, they are constantly under stress that weakens their bodies. And alleviating poverty alone will do a lot to raise life expectancies in the elderly, especially since they are the group of people most likely to live in poverty. And Social Security is a smashing success in relieving poverty in the elderly.**

Social Security reduces the proportion of elderly people living in poverty from nearly one in two to fewer than one in eight, according to a new study released today of Census data. The study found that in 1997, nearly half of all elderly people — 47.6 percent — had incomes below the poverty line before receipt of Social Security benefits. After receiving Social Security benefits, only 11.9 percent remained poor.

As a result, the study said, Social Security raised out of poverty more than one in every three elderly Americans. The program lifted 11.4 million elderly people above the poverty line.

Without Social Security, the study found, 15.3 million elderly had incomes below the poverty line. After Social Security, only 3.8 million elderly did. Three-fourths of those elderly people who would have been poor without Social Security were lifted from poverty by it.

I got the strong impression from that video that Glenn Beck’s attitude was that people like him should enjoy long lives, but poorer elderly people can basically fuck off and die for all he cares. I got my grandma, so screw you kind of thinking. However, I would highly recommend he give up this crusade against longevity in the elderly. Lowering life expectancy in the elderly would really do a number on the ability of the teabaggers to get enough people to show up to their protests to make the pictures interesting.

*I mean, for fuck’s sake. The President in 1935 had survived an often-deadly disease that was both really common then and basically non-existent now.
**I can’t believe you need to argue that giving people money makes them less poor.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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