If the elderly can pay, they should pay

TONIGHT, a 77-year-old man will take to the stage in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and receive a rapturous reception.

He will then perform a three hour concert of his songs mined from the last fifty years.

If Leonard Cohen’s past shows are anything to go by, a considerable number of those in attendance will proclaim it one of the best concerts they have ever attended. Tonight’s gig will be the fourth he has given at the venue over the last five days. He has gallons of petrol in the tank.

Last week, Bob Dylan released his 35th studio album. Dylan is 71 years young. To the ear of this listener, his latest offering, entitled Tempest, is really, really good. He first came to public notice over 50 years ago, but the last 15 years have proved to be particularly fruitful for him from an artistic perspective. He continues to produce top notch stuff and he continues to tour on a punishing schedule which might tire out somebody a third of his age. He does it, as he might say himself, not for the money, but just to keep on keepin’ on.

Unlike Dylan or Cohen, Mick O’Dwyer is taking a break. Well, relatively speaking. Soon after he turned 75 last year, he announced he was stepping down as manager of the Wicklow senior football team. Dwyer, as he is known in Kerry (no point in wasting an ‘O’ on an icon), was mooted last month to be a possible contender for the role of Kerry football manager.

While he ruled himself out, the speculation alone points to the fact that he is regarded as somebody well capable of doing that job. Don’t rule him out popping up in some other county in the coming year. In the meantime, he continues to lead an active life, probably more befitting somebody half his age.

The three men mentioned above are exceptional individuals, but they are not unique. Like legions of others, the three are well into their seventies and in the type of robust health that permits them to undertake punishing physical lifestyles. None of them would be described as “vulnerable” in a societal sense. While each has gifts that propel them into the orbit of celebrity, their active lives are just typical of many of their vintage.

These observations are made in the context of the phrase that is habitually invoked when discussing the current economic malaise. Everybody is in favour of “protecting the most vulnerable”. In terms of those of pension age, this phrase is used as if everybody who has reached that station in life can be thus classified.

It is obviously true that pensioners as a demographic are more likely to encounter health problems. It is also the case that the risks of experiencing poverty can be greater for some in the later stages of life.

However, that is far from the full story. Many pensioners enjoy robust health, and active lifestyles, and while time will ensure that physical prosperity can’t last forever, the future has been squeezed for everybody right now.

It is also the case that many pensioners enjoy good financial health. A large cohort of those who were in a position to make their own provisions for retirement are better off than many still of working age. Some pensioners are far better off financially than, for instance, some young parents who are saddled with huge mortgages.

Yet so far, pensioners as a whole have been saved most of the worst manifestations of austerity. Those on minimum pensions have been hit by higher costs for basics, such as fuel and gas, but there is also a large cohort that have been able to comfortably absorb those hikes.

For anybody under 50, the size of private or public service pensions that are now being paid to pensioners is something out of Fantasy Island. As things stand, precious few of those shy of the half century will ever get to enjoy a retirement reinforced with the level of comfort currently on offer.

In a review last week, the IMF suggested the government should cut the old age pension. That would be an indiscriminate move that could impact on pensioners who are genuinely vulnerable. But there certainly is a case, in the current climate, for looking at pensions on the whole, and examining whether cuts can be made in some places.

Domestically, the departments of social welfare and transport are examining the cost of free travel for pensioners. The subsidy for the measure at the moment costs €77m, although it’s difficult to see how this is calculated. Free travel is just one of a number of universal benefits provided for pensioners, such as the free TV licence.

Should these type of universal benefits continue to be provided? Already, there are mumblings from lobby groups that any interference in the current free travel scheme will be met with sound and fury. Certainly, it is vital that any possible changes are made in a manner that takes full account of those most in need. For instance, many among the high proportion of elderly people living alone often use the free travel pass to socialise, whereas they might not be as inclined to do so if they had to pay. They should be central to any considerations.

But is really it feasible that all benefits and payments for pensioners remain ringfenced? Is there a place for means testing?

Of course, on one level, the classification of all pensioners as vulnerable is politically cynical. The reality is pensioners have huge political power. They number around half a million strong. They are more engaged with the political process that any other demographic.

Nobody forgets the protests in reaction to cuts to the universal medical card for over-70s in 2008. The signal went out loud and clear from thousands who arrived at the gates of Leinster House on their free travel passes. Hands off our benefits.

Politically, opponents of the government portrayed the cut as an attack on the most vulnerable. The measure was certainly introduced in a cackhanded manner. Thresholds for the new card were not communicated properly. Fear understandably spread that many who couldn’t afford to pay for medicines would now have their health endangered. The whole affair was handled in as reckless a manner as the introduction of the free cards had been undertaken seven years earlier. But, from the point of view of fairness and social justice, removing the universal benefit was perfectly justified.

If this Government has learned anything, then any changes to benefits for pensioners must be handled in a manner that is sensitive. It must also be targeted in such a way that doesn’t generate fear, particularly over matters related to health.

Some sections of society have been hurt disproportionately in the current economic turmoil. The young are most vulnerable to unemployment, as they were to the bubble in property prices. Pensioners, by contrast, have so far been disproportionately protected. If any element of fairness is to be introduced to the accursed austerity being inflicted, then that situation will have to change.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

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