By Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) - 02/12/14 07:11 PM EST
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before Congress and announced an “unconditional war on poverty.” He said rightly, “This will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.”
That speech launched the war on poverty, a series of Great Society programs and initiatives that worked to create opportunity and tackle poverty from every angle. Along with Head Start, Jobs Corps, and the Food Stamp Act, came the creation of Medicare.
Medicare is a basic bargain for Americans in their later years: a guarantee of quality healthcare. Medicare ensures that seniors won’t be pushed to the edge, and we must continue to protect it.
Today, more than half of Medicare beneficiaries have annual incomes of less than $23,000 and savings of less than $77,500. Forty percent have three or more chronic conditions, and almost a quarter have cognitive/mental impairment.
But Medicare is so much more than medical care. Medicare reduces poverty, closes health gaps and creates economic activity.
Thanks to Medicare and Social Security working together, there has been a nearly 75 percent drop in poverty for our nation’s seniors since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and not only has the poverty rate dropped, seniors’ quality of life has significantly increased. This effort is essential as we work as a nation to eradicate poverty for children, adults and, especially, seniors.
Another important part of Medicare is how it affects communities of color. With a higher risk than other communities for certain chronic conditions, communities of color are lagging behind. By expanding access to reliable, affordable healthcare, Medicare is helping to eliminate health disparities by improving healthcare usage and health outcomes, as well as educating health professionals to improve diversity and cultural competence.
For women of color in particular, who in addition to being poorer, have smaller life savings and face more intensive healthcare needs, Medicare is eliminating the gaps in rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and many more.
Lastly, Medicare, while it cares for those who are disabled and America’s seniors, is creating economic growth. Some estimates suggest that, for every dollar that we spend on programs like Medicare, nearly $1.30 is put back into the economy. At a time of budget tightening and fiscal battles each and every month, Medicare is proving its resilience and its value time and time again.
For these reasons and so many more, I will continue to work to protect Medicare and will reject any effort to dismantle it. At a time when our nation is still recovering from the greatest recession since the Great Depression, Medicare is not only helping our seniors, it’s helping our economy, and we must keep it strong.
Even though the program remains effective, Republicans continue to attack it, introduce cuts and seek to undermine it at every turn.
What Johnson recognized in 1964 was that poverty is a scourge on our nation’s conscience and, for the most powerful nation on earth to have one senior die in poverty was one senior too many. A strong safety net is essential to our nation, so that we lift people out of poverty and create economic security and stability for all, especially our seniors.
1964 and the years after were an incredible time of action for social change in America. In addition to Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were both passed, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development was created. What wove these great initiatives together was at the very heart of our nation: that we have the responsibility to create the most just society possible. Whether it’s helping low-income children catch up to their peers, putting food on the table for hungry families, or in the case of Medicare, ensuring quality medical care for our nation’s seniors, we are a nation that cares for the vulnerable. It is my hope that we will live up to that legacy and continue to invest in programs like Medicare.
Lee has represented northern California congressional districts since 1999. She sits on the Appropriations and Budget committees.