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OpinionOpEd

Akst: Why subsidize affluent seniors?

Imagine if Warren Buffett, suddenly yearning for the sea, were to visit me here on Long Island.

Of course I'd want to show him around. If we rode Long Island Bus to the train station - Warren would approve, since he's kind of tight with a dollar - he'd get a big break on the fare because he's a senior citizen. The same would be true on the Long Island Rail Road, and on the New York City subways if we decided to go into town.

The pattern would continue when it came time for some entertainment. He'd get away paying less at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at some Yankee games, and at AMC movie theaters.

If he wants to get some exercise, he can grab some gear at a discount at Modell's. If he overstays his welcome on my sofa, he can get a senior discount at any number of hotels. And if he needs an oil change after the long drive from Nebraska, certain Jiffy Lube outlets will give him a break.

I admire Warren Buffett. But does anyone else find it galling that you could pal around with one of the richest men in the world, and every place you went they would charge you more than they charged him - just because you're not as old?

Age has its discontents, of course, and the physical disadvantages are indisputable. But is it really something that requires financial compensation? Aren't the elderly fortunate to have achieved longevity? Consider the alternative, after all.

And I can't help noticing that while movie chains and commuter railroads are ready to reward Warren just for being old, they have shown no interest in compensating me for being stupid. I may be quite a bit younger, but I do not have his great gift for making money, and this shortcoming would seem vastly more worthy of redress than the mere difference in our ages.

So why do senior citizen discounts persist? It's because people still think of older Americans as poor, because high voter turnout among the elderly makes politicians want to give them things, and because the rest of us haven't thought very hard about this widespread form of discrimination.

It's true that once upon a time, being 65 or older was a more reliable indicator of straitened circumstances. The impecunious elderly were supposedly reduced to eating cat food over the kitchen sink.

But things have changed. Today, older Americans - as a group - are quite affluent. In 2007, families headed by someone under 35 had a median net worth of just $11,800. But those headed by someone 65 to 74 had $239,400. That same year, USA Today reported that almost all the additional wealth created in this country since 1989 went to those 55 and older.

Despite their financial success, older Americans get more than senior citizen discounts. Thanks to Medicare and Social Security, which even the well-to-do receive, they are the ones best protected by our nation's social safety net.

But there's still more. New York gives homeowners 65 and over a break on their property taxes if they meet certain income requirements. On Long Island, with its hefty property taxes, that can add up to some real money. The lost revenue is made up by higher taxes on the rest of us.

One reason younger people tolerate this state of affairs may be that we all believe we'll get our turn. But sadly, this isn't the case. Some people die before they get old enough to cash in - and during their shortened lives they get to subsidize the many dubious breaks and perks given the oldsters.

On the other hand, Warren Buffett is a good guy, even if he is a billionaire. Isn't it nice that, when we ride the train, they take a few bucks from my pocket and slip it into his?

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