By Max Richtman
Sometimes Washington, D.C., seems farther removed from rural Rappahannock County than the roughly 70 miles of distance would indicate. Working on Capitol Hill and living part-time in Woodville, I regularly traverse both worlds. I know first-hand that decisions being made in the marble halls of the Capitol could soon impact the thousands of seniors who call this corner of Virginia home. Many are of extremely modest means, with incomes just above the poverty line. Most rely on Social Security, Medicare, and other federal programs to stay healthy and out of poverty. They also value the nutritional assistance and social interaction that comes with a program like Home Delivered Meals (our local version of Meals on Wheels). Unfortunately, budget hawks in Washington have proposed to cut Social Security, privatize Medicare, and slash programs that help feed, employ, and keep seniors warm in winter.
Seniors make up 23 percent of the population in this county — far more than the statewide figure of 13 percent. By 2040, Rappahannock seniors will account for nearly 30 percent of the county’s total population. The growing number of seniors in the county means increasing demand for healthcare, retirement security, and basic services. This is why federal programs benefiting older Americans should be boosted, not slashed, as some in Washington are proposing.
With a population density of 28 persons per square mile, many Rappahannock seniors live in isolation — far away from essential services. Isolated seniors are highly dependent on federal programs and face the biggest risks if program funding is cut. Meanwhile, income disparities in the county are widening. The top 1 percent of earners make 33 times the income of those at the bottom, which includes many seniors struggling to keep their heads above water financially. These seniors depend on Medicaid to pay for long-term care. They rely on Medicare for proper healthcare. Nearly half of America’s seniors rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. But some in Congress propose to carve $700 billion from Medicaid, cut Social Security benefits by some 30 percent, and privatize Medicare.
President Trump’s 2018 budget makes deep cuts to federal programs for seniors, including Meals on Wheels, community service job training and home heating assistance. Cuts like these literally leave seniors out in the cold. One of the most impactful items on the chopping block is federal support for Virginia’s State Health Insurance Assistance Program (VICAP), which helps seniors navigate the Medicaid and Medicare systems to maximize their benefits. Local advocates for the elderly rightly worry that proposed budget cuts will severely diminish the quality of life for our seniors.
The president’s 2018 budget virtually flat-lines the operating budget of the Social Security Administration (SSA). Overwhelmed by the growing number of retirees and draconian budget cuts begun in 2010, the SSA has already been forced to cut customer service to beneficiaries, closing hundreds of field and mobile offices nationwide. Many Rappahannock seniors currently must travel a long way to the SSA office in Culpeper if they want in-person assistance. Underfunding the agency may increase the likelihood of further closures, meaning the nearest Social Security office may be farther and farther away.
Because of geographic isolation and income disparities, Rappahannock seniors are the ones who will be hurt most by federal cutbacks. It is wrong for Washington politicians to pull the rug out from under these already vulnerable citizens. We in the seniors’ advocacy community — along with grassroots activists throughout the country — will continue to fight efforts to undermine the programs that keep seniors healthy and out of poverty.
Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, has a home in Woodville.