The senior constituency

Matt Towery

8/18/2005 12:00:00 AM - Matt Towery

Baby boomers aren't babies anymore. The oldest among them are already starting to retire, and the crest of this demographic tidal wave won't break for many years.

 That's why the results of our latest survey are both a newsmaking and a political bombshell. We asked seniors, "Have you ever been a victim of what might be termed a consumer scam?"

 Ten percent said "yes." That's one out of every 10 seniors who responded to our poll.

 The InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion survey was conducted for the Elder Consumer Protection Program at the Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg, Fla. The poll was conducted in July among 600 adults aged 65 and over across the nation. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 The problem of seniors getting hoodwinked by criminals is prominent among the concerns of the over-65 crowd, but it's by no means their only one. Their many and growing issues are going to be an enduring challenge for America's policymakers for years to come.

 The needs of seniors used to be predominantly the domain of the New Deal/Great Society Democrats in Congress. Now, they are the worry of even the most self-serving, indifferent politician. Many of them have no choice but to work for senior interests if they want to stay in office. That's the efficiency of our political system at work.

 This perpetual political problem is compounded by the otherwise happy fact that seniors are living longer and better than ever before. But not without costs. Medical costs. Retirement costs. And yes, political costs.

 And seniors don't just want things. More times than not, they need them. Consequently, elected officials need the seniors.

 Given this sobering information about seniors and consumer fraud, it's safe to presume that as America continues to "turn gray," criminal bank accounts will continue to "turn green" unless decisive action is taken.

 Such action won't be easy. Seniors report being the victim of a wide variety of devious misdeeds, including (in descending order of frequency) home improvement scams, telemarketing scams, sales schemes, lottery/big money scams, work-at-home scams and others.

 Unfortunately, the common thread among the prospective solutions for what ails our seniors is money. As often as not, it's tax money. And as the retired class demands government proceeds in ever-greater amounts, the nation's less populated demographic of young people may be forced to contribute a bigger and bigger portion of their salaries to subsidize their elders through excessive taxation. In years to come, class warfare may be replaced by generational warfare.

 This has been widely discussed in terms of the Social Security system, in which fewer workers are going to have to provide for more and more retirees.

 But that may only be the start. Our poll also revealed that an overwhelming number of seniors believe they should be provided with more consumer protection services than they're now getting. That will take more money for law enforcement and the judicial system to stay abreast of new criminal schemes as quickly as the bad guys can invent them.

 Further, the poll showed that about three out of four seniors are worried that their retirement money isn't going to be enough to sustain them in relative comfort and security for the rest of their lives.

 And don't forget prescription drugs and their costs. Our poll revealed that 39 percent of American seniors want the right to buy drugs over the Internet, while 34 percent did not. The rest didn't know or had no opinion.

 When you consider that many seniors never even go online, 39 percent suddenly looks like a big number.

 So what's a country to do? Budget ahead and innovate.

 Maybe the president's privatization of Social Security isn't an example of sound reform. But neither is reflexively hanging on to old methods in the face of new challenges. It's not 1965 anymore, and Lyndon Johnson isn't president.

 Stiffer penalties for new, cyber-crimes are called for, as are stronger protections of online personal information and regulation -- yes, regulation -- of Internet commerce, so that senior shut-ins can get the prescriptions they need.

 Above all, members of Congress must look beyond short-term political gain and do what's just plain right.

 Democrats shouldn't oppose a policy just because a GOP president sponsored it. And Republicans shouldn't snuggle up to the pharmaceutical industry, thereby keeping seniors from finding new and cheaper ways to obtain drugs just so the GOP can rake in more campaign contributions.

 What's called for is the hardest thing for our politicians -- new solutions for old problems. It's time to get real.