Polishing up the Golden Years

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Old Folks at Home, by Alvin Rabushka and Bruce Jacobs, New York: Free Press, 1980, 202 pp., $10.95.

For the sake of the nation's self-image, I'm glad Ronald Reagan is as old as he is. I believe he exudes vitality and good humor because of his age, rather than in spite of it. To be old, these days, is to be fashionable: Reagan's generation is receiving all of the scholarly concern, public attention, and government handouts. The spotlight of intergenerational politics has been turned on senior citizens, and their response merely reconfirms the Hawthorne effect. If Reagan were a generation younger, he might not have the pep to be mayor of Palm Springs.

We "Depression babies," who are a generation younger, have grown somewhat disenchanted with intergenerational politics, and understandably so. Twenty years ago we were guilty parents; today, we're guilty children. The wave of the baby boom has rolled on into adulthood, pushing ahead of it the wave of the grandparent boom, and those meager and overworked few of us in the trough between have been forced to support both.

Now we're told not to expect as much, when we retire, in the way of social security and the other benefits we have so generously supplied to our elders. Not that we ever did expect much: my generation has been conditioned by the breast-beaters and bureaucrats to believe that it is more blessed to give windfalls than to receive one's due.

At least we have had the satisfaction of knowing that our sacrifice is in a good cause: that the elderly in our society are the truly needy, who "struggle to survive in an inhospitable world" and whose lives would be intolerable and maybe even forfeit if not for our collective beneficence. Right? Wrong!

Alvin Rabushka and Bruce Jacobs add the insult of conservative research to the injury of liberal taxation by presenting convincing data that our senior citizens are much better off than we've been led to believe and would just as soon get along without a lot of our institutionalized generosity. "They are, for the most part, self-supporting adults, who live in dignity and independence" and whose self-image "is one of normal living, not that of perpetual crisis."

Rabushka and Jacobs's conclusions are the result of an in-depth survey of 1,575 elderly homeowners in seven representative communities across the country, supplemented by analyses of other recent and comparable studies. Although in the basic study only homeowners were interviewed, the authors treat their results as generally valid for all of the elderly, since two-thirds of those over 65 live in their own homes and less than 5 percent live in institutions.

The book's most telling point is that "the problems of aging are of two kinds: those that older people say they have and those that experts think they have." In their survey the "needs" determined by the experts consistently and dramatically surpass the personal preferences of those interviewed.

For example, three-quarters of those interviewed felt that expert appraisals of needed housing repairs were excessive. Despite the expert opinion that elderly "life is lived in a kind of solitary confinement," three-quarters of those interviewed denied feeling more isolated from society as they grew older. And in a marvelous example of the brainwashing effect of "expert" opinion, an example cited by the authors from a 1974 Louis Harris survey, half of the elderly respondents thought that most people over 65 were in poor health, but only 21 percent put themselves in that category.

The authors' recommendations for policy changes are modest and practical. They range from reverse mortgage-based annuities to elderly income tax credits instead of exemptions to the elimination of minimum wage laws for the elderly and the abolition of mandatory retirement.

There are only two things wrong with Old Folks at Home. The first is its maudlin and inapt title. The second is its timid tone: those who are as able to destroy the myths of the welfare industry as Rabushka and Jacobs should do so in a much louder voice.

Charles Hobbs is a consultant and a coauthor of Retirement Security Reform (Institute for Liberty and Community).

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