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Jeb Bush’s apparent indifference to real lives of most Americans

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To hear Jeb Bush talk about Social Security is not simply to wonder whether he ever did a hard day’s work in his life, but also to doubt whether he cares that there are millions of people who must.

His proposal to raise the full retirement age in stages to 70, which has become a signal issue for him, sounds heedless of what it’s like to labor in construction or in a warehouse or on one’s feet all day as a public school teacher or a hospital nurse.

People wear out in jobs like that. Not enough to qualify as disabled, in most cases, but beyond the point where they deserve a dignified rest. Moreover, the Social Security Administration has already documented that men who retire early are in worse health than those who retire later. The much-discussed longevity increase is uneven.

It also appears not to cross Bush’s mind that as workers enter their 50s and 60s they’re increasingly vulnerable to being laid off — or “downsized,” as the managers euphemize their ruthlessness — with no hope of finding comparable jobs or help from age-discrimination laws that are more observed in the breach than in practice.

Corporate America has been shedding defined-benefit pension plans at a staggering rate. In 1980, more than 80 percent of full-time workers in medium and large private establishments were covered by one. Now, barely 20 percent are. Private retirement savings, such as 401(k) plans, haven’t increased proportionately. Fewer than half the people age 65 to 74 have them, and among those who do, the median amount is $149,000, meaning half have less.

We exchanged e-mails when Bush first came out with it. (Yes, he does read them.)

I asked whether he had taken into consideration the problems of age discrimination and of people in physically taxing jobs. His answer was non-responsive.

Bush: “If you read what I actually said (which I don’t know since I don’t read the clips), my thought on Social Security reform is that we gradually raise the retirement age over the long haul and we don’t start with people just about to become eligible.”

My response: “I’m aware that what you said is what they quoted … over time … but my concern still applies. Even later, people who are young now will still find themselves out of work or unable to continue in demanding jobs and the issue of employment age discrimination should be addressed effectively before the retirement age is raised. Do you have a plan for that?”

He didn’t reply.

Bush’s subsequent remarks, most recently on Face the Nation May 31, suggest he’s ignorant of the fact that Congress has already raised the full retirement age for everyone born after 1937. It steps up to 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

That’s not enough, it’s true, for the government to be able to pay full benefits after 2033, when payouts will begin to exceed revenues. The safest and fairest way to fix that is to raise the ceiling, presently $118,500, on earnings subject to the tax.

The worst way would be to means-test Social Security, which Bush said “ought to be considered, for sure,” during that Face the Nation interview. That’s shorthand for making it into a welfare program instead of an earned benefit, which would destroy it, for sure. People who think they might earn or save too much to qualify might work less or save less — it’s odd that any Republican would risk that result — but more likely would lose faith in Social Security altogether and object to the taxes that support it.

What you don’t hear from Bush, or anyone else in his league, is that the average Social Security benefit is only $1,300 a month, barely 30 percent over the poverty level. For two-thirds of the elderly, that’s half of all their income; for a third, it’s at least 90 percent. Overall, America’s national pension is the third lowest among the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, equaling less than 40 percent of what a median-income worker used to earn.

(For more details, check the website of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: www.cbpp.org.)

Bush’s apparent indifference to the real lives most Americans lead contrasts sharply with his sympathetic position on immigration. There’s no mystery in that: having married a lady from Mexico sensitized him.

Although it’s probably too late, Bush could benefit from the example set by Bob Graham when he contemplated running for governor in 1978.

Graham, a state senator then, knew he had two problems. He was unknown outside of Dade County and Tallahassee. His opponents could paint him as a child of privilege, just like Bush today, who had never needed to work hard.

In 1974, a teacher had challenged him to walk in her shoes by teaching a class himself for a day. He accepted. Inspired by that, he began a series of 102 campaign “work days” in such varied and often difficult jobs as cleaning horse stables, picking tomatoes, building roof trusses and constructing roads. A photograph of Graham sweating over a fallen log became an iconic campaign poster that had rival candidates gnashing their teeth. He continued the practice as governor and U.S. senator. He worked with the clowns at a circus, with crews providing hurricane relief, as a short order cook, and a plumber — 408 work days in all.

As a political gimmick, it was as successful as the walk from Pensacola to the Keys that had elected Lawton Chiles, another poorly known state legislator, to the U.S. Senate in 1970. But it was more than that; it was how they identified with the people of Florida and came to understand real life far better than Bush appears to.

Writing to a brother in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower extolled moderation in government.

“Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” he wrote. “There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. …”

“Their number is negligible and they are stupid,” Ike concluded.

They’re not so negligible now.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in western North Carolina.

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