OPINION: Whats at stake for retirees

When retirees go to the polls on Nov. 4, not only is their own retirement at stake, but so is the prospect of a stable, secure retirement for their children and grandchildren.

Tough times are hitting people of all ages, but those on fixed incomes are bearing the brunt of our failed economy. Steep increases in gas, groceries, health care, and home heating bills have been devastating for older Americans. According to a new study by the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, those 55 and older now account for nearly one quarter of all bankruptcies in the nation.

That is why this fall’s election is so important to current and future retirees. On the issues facing older voters – Social Security, health care, and energy – the records of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain could not be more different.

Barack Obama has a detailed plan to strengthen Social Security to keep it strong for generations to come. And because he knows how hard it is for retirees to get by, his economic recovery plan would eliminate income tax for seniors earning less than $50,000 per year.

John McCain, in contrast, embraces President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, which would take money out of the Social Security Trust Fund and create private accounts tied to the roulette wheel of the stock market. With all that is going on lately, Wall Street is the last place you want to put your Social Security. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Americans’ retirement accounts have lost up to $2 trillion in the past 15 months. We have a major retirement crisis on our hands.

In July, John McCain, who receives $23,000 in annual Social Security benefits, said it was “an absolute disgrace” that younger workers must pay for current Social Security beneficiaries. Senator McCain voted to raise the Social Security retirement age from 65 to 67. Nearly one in six Americans receives Social Security benefits, including (2 million in Ohio, 1.8 million in Michigan, 2.4 million in Pennsylvania). They are our elderly, our widows and widowers, and our young children who have seen a parent die. It is our nation’s most successful anti-poverty program. If Social Security benefits did not exist, an estimated 44 percent of seniors would be living in poverty today.

Barack Obama would expand access to high-quality, affordable health care, but John McCain would tax employer-provided health benefits and lead many companies to drop coverage, particularly for retirees. A study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that the McCain health care plan would fall far short of what retirees would need to cover their premiums and out-of-pocket costs, particularly for those with pre-existing conditions. Senator McCain voted to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

Another cold winter for many is just around the corner, and seniors on fixed incomes are already wondering if they will have to choose between eating dinner and keeping their house warm. The U.S. Energy Department is expecting home heating oil to cost 30 percent more this winter, along with a 19 percent increase for natural gas. Barack Obama will increase the Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program, a vital service for which Senator McCain has repeatedly voted against any increases.

Retirees built this country. They built our roads and our bridges, worked in our factories and our fields, and fought overseas to defend our freedoms. They raised us to believe that the American dream still exists. These strong men and women are my heroes. In this election, we must make sure that all they worked for – and all they taught us to believe in – will still exist across America.

Richard Trumka is Secretary Treasurer of the 10 million member American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations.