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No Sympathy for Poors from the Silver Hordes

According to a new Brookings Institution study, the majority of America’s elderly don’t want the government to help poor people. And they sure as hell don’t want the government to provide them with health insurance. (Get our government hands off their Medicaid?)

The study’s results indicate that, since the late 1970s, support of government intervention in the lives of the needy has dropped by half among people ages 65 and older. This Brookings study pairs well with similar results from a YouGov/Economist poll that found 93 percent of old people believe that they do not receive government subsidies to help pay for their health insurance (PDF). (Get your government hands off my Medicare!)

Is it necessary to point out that that can’t possibly be true? What’s going on here?

The elephant in the room is that the decline in support for government programs coincides almost perfectly with the rate of wage stagnation. The gap between the rich and the poor seems inversely proportional to the decline in elderly sympathy for corrective actions by the government. Could it indicate a loss of faith in the ability of government to actually help people? Sure, but that’s a generous interpretation. More likely it’s that wages and sympathy are both on the decline because of the inherent selfishness of the Baby Boomers.

Conservatives, though, have latched onto the “loss of faith in government” argument. It serves their ideological agenda pretty well. Conservative editor and professor Joe Carter thinks that the elderly have changed their minds as they’ve come to the realization that “increased redistribution doesn’t make them wealthier or less dependent on government.”

This might be a salient point if there had been an increase in distribution of wealth since the late 1970s, which there hasn’t been. There’s been less. Furthermore, it’s not necessarily everyone’s primary goal to become less dependent on government; some people are forced to triage their needs, and opt for the less ideologically-entrenched demands of health care, food on the table, and education. In this economy, the policy propaganda of fiscal conservatives is a luxury that not everyone can afford.

The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog puts forth a few interesting readings of the Brookings numbers. One suggestion is that older people are generally healthier now than they were in 1978. “People who feel worse overall might be more grateful for help of any kind, including from Uncle Sam,” writes Max Ehrenfreund. “When the authors examined this theory, though, they found that the elderly in other countries were not becoming less supportive of redistribution, ruling out global advances in medicine as an explanation.” But who knows, it might still be a reasonable interpretation of how older Americans react to being healthier.

The strongest reading of these results is that maybe people over 65 just don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve seen a depressing number of… I’ll call them “memes,” all saying some version of “I paid for my Medicare, I earned it.”

Setting aside the morally dubious issue of whether or not people should have to “earn” health care, the idea that Medicare is something one has already paid for in full is a tragic misunderstanding. If you are over 65, you most likely receive some sort of Medicare subsidy, even if you don’t realize it. And it is a subsidy, in that other people are now paying it for you—what you paid in the past in doesn’t nearly cover the services that you’re currently getting, even before accounting for inflation. So yes, despite the fevered rhetoric from delusional libertarians, Medicare is a government-run subsidies program, and you’re getting more out of it than you put into it. You leeches.

When looking at the Brookings study’s generational comparisons, let’s keep in mind that 65-year-olds of the late 1970s are different people than the 65-year-olds of 2015. This seems like an obvious point, but it needs to be made. It’s a mistake to frame this change in sentiment as if one single, eternally-65 segment of the populace suddenly changed its mind about government assistance for the poor. What we’re looking at is the difference between two generations. And the 65-year-olds of today are part of the most avaricious, self-righteous, navel gazing generation yet to grace the earth: the Baby Boomers.

The old folks back in the seventies had vivid memories the Great Depression. The old folks now caused the latest depression. They ruined the strong economy their parents bequeathed to them. They ruined public education. They ushered in a never-ending, borderless, series of wars around the world. They did their best to destroy human life on Earth. And most insulting of all, they interpreted the fulfillment of their own personal desires as their greatest gift to the world.

They may have made great student activists in the 1960s and 70s, but for most of them, it was a brief foray into progressive politics as an aesthetic. The Baby Boomers had to invent the phrase “selling out” to describe where their lives went next. Understand that, and you understand the Brookings poll.