Category Archives: age discrimination

The Myth of the Greedy Geezer

The following appeared today as an opinion piece on Al Jazeera English.

Old people are becoming everyone’s favourite scapegoat for America’s economic woes. Among the growing ranks of self-styled deficit hawks, Social Security and
Medicare are depicted as an intolerable burden to the nation’s already crippled
economy, which can only be saved through massive cuts to these so-called old-age entitlement programs. To advance this agenda, proponents of entitlement cuts have attacked not only the programs themselves, but the people who benefit from them – the selfish old folks like myself, who insist upon bankrupting the
country for the sake of their own costly health care and retirement income.

We in the over-65 set have become the present-day equivalent of Reagan’s notorious “welfare queens,” supposedly living high on the hog at the expense of the taxpayer. According to what I call the Myth of the Greedy Geezer, we lucky
oldsters spend our time lolling about in lush retirement villas, racing our golf
carts to under-priced early-bird dinner specials and toasting our good fortune
with cans of Ensure – all at the expense of struggling young people, who will
never enjoy such pleasures since the entitlement “Ponzi scheme” will collapse
long before they are old.

The fervour for entitlement-cutting remains strongest among conservatives, but these days, even President Obama is taking part, promoting the recommendations of his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Deficit Commission (and to its opponents as the Cat food Commission, since that’s what old people will be eating when the Commission finishes its work).

The appointed chair of the Deficit Commission, Alan Simpson, is one of the primary promulgators of the Myth of the Greedy Geezer. A former Republican senator from Wyoming who is known for his colourful turns of phrase, Simpson insists that “This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.” The majority of the people opposed to such cuts, he claims, are “These old cats 70 and 80 years old who are not
affected in one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their
Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount. This is madness.”…

Read the rest at Al Jazeera.

Soylent Greenbacks: David Brooks Wants Some People to Die for Debt Reduction

To help solve the debt crisis, the best thing I can do is die. Maybe not right now, but certainly before I put too much strain on the public purse—and since I’m 74, that means pretty soon. If I should be lucky enough to contract a fatal disease, I can do the right thing by eschewing expensive medical care that might extend my life. If that doesn’t happen, and I enter a slow and costly decline, then in the interests of the greater good I should take the Hemingway solution.

That’s pretty much the message of David Brooks’s column in today’s New York Times. “This fiscal crisis is about many things,” he writes, “but one of them is our
inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy
to extend life for a few more sickly months.”

Here’s how Brooks comes by his position: To begin with, he says: “The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs.” Never mind two futile wars and ten years of tax relief for millionaires—it’s primarily health care that’s driving us into national penury.

Furthermore, Brooks argues, the reason for these soaring health care costs is that very old and very sick people insist on clinging on to their miserable lives, when they ought to be civic-minded enough to kick off. It’s not the insurance companies, which reap huge profits by serving as useless, greed-driven middlemen. It’s not the drug companies, which are making out like bandits with virtually no government regulation. It’s not the whole corrupt, overpriced system of medicine-for-profit, which delivers the 37th best health care in the world, according to the WHO, at more than twice the cost of the best system (France). No. It’s all about us greedy geezers. We’re the ones who are placing an untenable burden on the younger, heartier citizenry, with our selfish desire to live a little longer.

Brooks cites the usual figures: “A large share of our health care spending is devoted to ill patients in the last phases of life,” he writes, and Alzheimer’s patients will soon cost us hundreds of billions. He continues: “Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside.” (Thanks, Dave.) “We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing.” Nonetheless, Brooks hopes than many “old and ailing” people will make the choice made by Dudley Clendinen, a man suffering from A.L.S., who wrote a moving essay in the Times about his decision to end his life before the disease takes its full course and renders him “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.”

I have great respect for Clendinen’s decision. As I’ve written before in Mother Jones, I am a big supporter of what these days is called “choice in dying” or “death with dignity”—each person’s right to decide when and where and in what
circumstances they will die. But I don’t want anyone else making those decisions for me, or telling me when the time is right—not an insurance company or a Medicare bureaucrat, not Barack Obama or John Boehner, and certainly not
David Brooks. I have every intention of being my own one-man death panel. But I won’t be persuaded to die a moment sooner than I want to just because it might
save some money–money that could easily be saved by far more equitable and less draconian means.

Brooks writes that “it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing —confront death and their obligations to the living.” But why is it “hard to see us reducing health care inflation” any other way? Because conservatives like Brooks don’t believe in challenging the profit-driven health care system, and the people who pass these days for liberals lack the moxie to stand up to them.

Based on models from countries like France and Canada, we could bring about whopping savings in health care expenditures through a single payer system without rationing or compromising the quality of care. Short of this, we could opt for much more regulation and still save more money than we could by pulling the plug on every geezer in the land.

If I have any “obligation to the living,” it’s to leave them with a better health care system than we have now—a health care system that values all human life above profits. But I know that’s not likely to happen before my death—which, if I listen to Brooks, could be right around the corner.

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Japan Sacrificing Its Elders to Nuclear Fallout

Having utterly failed to anticipate the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster following the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government and its parasite nuclear industry plod along amidst a worsening situation. They’ve dumped coolants from helicopters, brought in huge cranes, dug holes– all to no avail. They’ve tried humans in the form of nuclear plant workers, but they have begun to die by the ones and twos. In the meantime, there has been no serious consideration of criminal indictments against the government and industry officials responsible for this incredible industrial failure.

Finally they’ve been handed a genius solution: mass suicide by old people in the spirit of national pride. These volunteers will willingly march forward into the valley of death.  If they get cancer, the thinking goes, it won’t hit them until they are dead anyhow. And they will provide a valuable service to society: saving the young men and women  so they can procreate and provide labor for years to come. And it’s all being done amidst a wonderful flowering of national patriotism.

The death march of the old is described in the New York Times.

Seemingly against logic, Yasuteru Yamada, 72, is eager for the chance to take part. After seeing hundreds of younger men on television struggle to control the damage at the Daiichi power plant, Mr. Yamada struck on an idea: Recruit other older engineers and other specialists to help tame the rogue reactors.

Not only do they have some of the skills needed, but because of their advanced age, they are at less risk of getting cancer and other diseases that develop slowly as a result of exposure to high levels of radiation. Their volunteering would spare younger Japanese from dangers that could leave them childless, or worse.

“We have to contain this accident, and for that, someone should do the work,” said Mr. Yamada, a retired plant engineer who had worked for Sumitomo Metal Industries. “It would benefit society if the older generation took the job because we will get less damage from working there.”

Blame It On the Geezers: Matt Bai’s Generational Theory of Politics

In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Bai argues that it’s old people who are disproportionately driving the Tea Party Movement, and especially its anti-government venom and its strong racist element. “According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously,” he writes. “A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.”
 
Based on this data, and on the history of the last 70-odd years, Bai constructs a theory that divides American politics largely along generational lines:  
[A] sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys…
 
In other words, we are living at an unusual moment when the rate of progress has been dizzying from one generation to the next, such that Americans older than 60, say, are rooted in a radically different sense of society from those younger than 40. And this generational tension — perhaps even more than race or wealth or demography — tends to fracture our politics.
 
These numbers probably do reflect some profound racial differences among the generations, but they are more indicative of how young and old Americans approach the issues of the day, generally. Older Americans now — no longer the New Deal generation, but the generation that remembers Vietnam, gas lines and court-ordered busing — are less enamored of expansive government than their parents were. They fear changes to their entitlement programs, even as they denounce the explosion in federal spending. They are less optimistic about the high-tech economy, more fearful of the impact of immigration and free trade.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Mostly, what’s wrong with it is what’s left out. Bai (who is 41) mentions that todays old folks “lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s.” But who, exactly, does he think was carrying out the marches and riots? The exact same age group, of course–made up of my own generation and that of the Baby Boomers.
 
These people are today, for the most part, over the age of 60–the precise age that places our roots, Bai says, in a “radically different society.” Despite these apparently rotten roots, the generations that Bai criticizes (with a hint of oh-so-condescending compassion) managed to accomplish the following:
 
1. Launched and fought the Civil Right Movement, in which several dozen African Americans and a handful of white lost their lives, and hundreds more were beaten and arrested. Compared to this, the accomplishment of younger generations–voting for a black president–was a cakewalk.
 
2. Protested against and eventually shortened the Vietnam war. These protests were large, fierce, and widespread, and went on for years. Unless I somehow missed it, I’ve yet to see a comparable antiwar movement mounted today, among the young people Bai celebrates.
 
3. Supported the War on Poverty–not only with our rhetoric, but with our paychecks. (The top marginal tax rate in 1965 was 70 percent; now it’s 35 percent). In contrast, today’s Democratic party, starting with Clinton and continuing through Obama, has pretty much abandoned the poor to their fate. So today’s bourgeoise youth can declare themselves “progressive” without having to give up a thing.
 
The gist of Bai’s article is that our society will improve as we bigoted old geezers to die off, and make way for more broad-minded generations. But I wonder: Are there any among the younger generations who are going to fight the kind of fights we fought in this brave new world? If there are, they’d better stand up now. 

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How to Become Your Own One-Member Death Panel

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Petition to Stop the Entitlement-Cutting “Catfood Commission”

Readers of Unsilent Generation may be interested in a new online petition directed at members of Congress, concerning the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility of Reform, which I’ve written about here many times before. Here is the introduction to the petition, which was started by Alternet. You can read the text of the petition, and sign it, here at Change.org

Right-Wing “Deficit Hawks” and their enablers are on a march to destroy the social safety net we built for our seniors and retirees. Shockingly, some of the most notorious advocates are actually in charge of the presidential commission that will soon determine the future of Social Security and Medicare. We need to stop them in their tracks! Join us in calling on Congress to Stop the Catfood Commission.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has been dubbed by progressives the “Catfood Commission” because its goal appears to be cutting benefits so drastically that retirees will only be able to afford to eat pet food. It’s hard to tell exactly what the commission is planning because its meetings are closed to the public and the press. Based on past statements and the background of its members the proposals are likely to include raising the retirement age to 70, turning large portions of Social Security over to Wall Street, and cutting Medicare benefits.

The commission’s co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has stated he believes the founders of the Social Security program never expected anyone to actually live to 65 and collect. “People just died,” he has said. “Social Security was never [for] retirement.” Erskine Bowles, the other co-chairman, negotiated a secret but ultimately unsuccessful deal between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security benefits. Any chances that the commission would make cuts to the US defense budget in its pursuit of fiscal responsibility seem slim owing to the fact that the CEO of Honeywell, a major defense contractor, is a member of the panel.

We can’t sit back and count on a Democratic-controlled Congress to protect our social safety net. Just a day before the July 4th holiday weekend, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would guarantee an up-or-down vote on the Catfood Commission’s recommendations in the current session of Congress if they pass the Senate. With this measure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relinquished her power to prevent the vote from coming to the floor.

Your representatives need to hear from you NOW.  Let’s stop the Catfood Commission from raiding the Social Security trust fund and slashing medical benefits for current and future retirees.

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New York City Is Abandoning Its Elders

Last week, Clyde Haberman of the New York Times  wrote about aging in his column, celebrating all that New York City is doing for its older residents:

 [I]t was interesting to come across a bit of news the other day that drew few headlines. The World Health Organization added New York to its “global network of age-friendly cities.” It was an international tip of the hat to the city for trying to make itself a better place for growing old. “It makes us members of a club of people who are struggling, in their own and perhaps much different ways, with learning about and thinking about and approaching this issue,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “It’s really a lovely recognition.” In some respects, New York is a great place in which to grow old. A decade ago, the Department for the Aging banged that drum, promoting this as “the ultimate retirement city.” It listed advantages like reduced mass-transit fares, splendid parks and limitless cultural opportunities to keep the mind active… 

New York ranked No. 7, based on considerations like available medical care, living space for the elderly and the relative ease of getting around on subways and buses. Portland, Ore., had top billing, a decision that surely had nothing to do with the fact that Sperling’s is based in Portland. “We’re a retirement destination,” Ms. Gibbs said. “A lot of retirees come with their bank accounts.” In recent years, the Department of City Planning says, about 11,500 people 65 and older have moved into New York each year.

Unfortunately, this presents a distorted picture of what’s going on.  In the same week that Haberman’s column was being celebrated for its “age-friendliness,” I received an email regarding cuts to New York’s services for the aging from Bobbie Sackman. She is a leading advocate in the City for the elderly, and runs the Center for Senior Community Services (CSCS), a non-profit that serves 300,000 older New Yorkers through a network of 363 senior centers, housing, adult day care, services for the homebound, mental health and other programs. Sackman wrote:

The New York City Department of Aging DFTA is a very small city agency and was just cut by $22 million – vulnerable seniors were hurt as social adult day services for people with Alzheimer’s lost all its funding which is devastating to both the individual with Alzheimer’s and their family caregivers being ripped apart by this disease, a 40 percent cut to a home care program for people above the Medicaid level (with incomes mostly $15,000-$20,000 a year in NYC), and other cuts.

The cuts affect New York’s most vulnerable elders–those who are poor, seriously ill, or suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. These older people were living on the edge as it was. With these deep cuts, there’s cause to wonder how they will even survive, much less enjoy New York’s “age-friendly” attractions.

Robert N. Butler, 1927 – 2010: Visionary Psychiatrist and Champion of Elders

If you’re like most people, you may find that at about age 70, life begins to close in on you. You’re supposed to be retired by then with an adequate pension and/or a 401K–only you don’t have a pension, your 401K went down in the big recession, and to tell the truth, you  don’t want to retire anyway. You want to work, but there the job market is tight, age discrimination is rampant, and thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s virtually no way to fight it. You don’t have the money, or maybe the nerve, to strike out on your own, unless you call flipping burgers striking out on your own.

The advertisements for retirement investments and hair color keep telling you that 70 is the new 40, that you’re only as young as you feel. AARP’s magazines say the same thing–but the world they depict seems unreal and, to tell the truth, somewhat revolting. Because you don’t feel young–you feel old. And in today’s America, that’s hardly a happy feeling. You feel shoved aside, irrelevant, a relic waiting to hurry up and die. You realize you can’t remember things as well as you once did, have more and more of the proverbial “senior moments,’’ and start wondering how long it will be until you sink into dementia, maybe Alzheimer’s, at which point your life will really be over.

There’s precious little in our society that acts as an antidote to any of these thoughts. But for the last half-century, there has been one man: Dr. Robert N. Butler. A psychiatrist, activist, and visionary, Butler died on Sunday at the age of 83, and is being eulogized in the obituaries as the founder of modern gerontology, the man who coined the word “ageism.’’ Butler founded the National Institute of Aging at the NIH, and helped found the American Association for geriatric Psychiatry and the Alzheimer’s Disease Association; he also launched the first medical department devoted to geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.  He wrote influential books, advised politicians, counseled the World Health Organization, and he founded and ran the International Longevity Center in New York. 

Through all of this work, Butler inspired thousands, perhaps millions of people to think differently about growing old, and to treat aging and the aged differently. For old people, that transformation is even more profound, because it means thinking differently about yourself. I am one of those people whose thinking was changed, in some significant way, by Robert Butler and his work.

I was lucky enough to meet Butler a few weeks ago at a week-long series of seminars his International Longevity Center put on annually for a small group of journalists, called the Age Boom Academy. That one week produced some of the most astute briefings on every aspect of health policy and the challenges ahead that one could hope to take in–from research on Alzheimers, to the political assault on Medicare and Social Security currently underway in the administration and Congress, to the day-to-day work on the ground across the City of New York. What I had feared might consist of a bunch of self-serving medical and psych professionals was instead an immersion into the real world of the politics and economics  of medicine, tempered always by Butler’s vision. Despite his concerns for the scandalous lack of funding for research on Alzheimer’s and the aging brain, as well as the growing shortage of doctors trained in gerontology or even general practitioners, he approached his work with unyielding  optimism. I had no idea he was battling a life-threatening illness.

On Monday I was on a train on my way to New York, where I had an appointment this week to sit down with him to further discuss his ideas, when I received an email and learned that he was gone. Although he had acute leukemia, Butler reportedly had been working until three days before his death. At 83, he had seemed like he was in the prime of life–not because he acted like he was 40, but because he had succeeded in redefining 83 as a different kind of prime, for himself and for others.

 In a speech not long ago at the American Academy of aging, Butler quoted Proust from In Search of Lost Time, “If we mean to try to understand this self, it is only in our innermost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved.” He saw that quest as part of the journey into old age, and gave it significance and dignity. He said in his speech:

In the 1950s, psychology, psychiatry and gerontology textbooks devalued reminiscence and memories. Reminiscing was condescendingly called “living in the past,” and phrases like “wandering of mind,” “boring” and “garrulous” were used to describe elders who looked back. Actually, reminiscence was thought to be an early diagnostic sign of senile psychosis–what is known today as Alzheimer’s disease. However, I was seeing a different picture in vibrant, healthy individuals who were engaging in a fascinating inward journey.

More than fifty years later, Butler’s ideas are widely respected by psychologists and social workers, many physicians and research scientists, and even some policymakers. As far as they have caught on at all with the general public, it is thanks to his tireless work. He like to point out that demographics was on his side: More and more, elders will outnumber youth, and the voice of the geezers will grow stronger and stronger.

I was pleased to see, this morning, an eloquently written obituary in the New York Times by Douglas Martin. Fittingly, it included some remembrances of Butler’s past. As Martin notes, “Dr. Butler’s mission emerged from his childhood.” His parents split up less than a year after he was born, and he went to live with his grandparents on a New Jersey chicken farm. 

He came to revere his grandfather, with whom he cared for sick chickens in the “hospital” at one end of the chicken house. He loved the old man’s stories. But the grandfather disappeared when Robert was 7, and nobody would tell him why. He finally learned that he had died.

Robert found solace in his friendship with a physician he identified only as Dr. Rose. Dr. Rose had helped him through scarlet fever and took him on his rounds by horse and carriage. The boy decided he could have helped his grandfather survive had he been a doctor. He also concluded that he would have preferred that people had been honest with him about death.

From his grandmother, he learned about the strength and endurance of the elderly, he wrote. After losing the farm in the Depression, she and her grandson lived on government-surplus foods and lived in a cheap hotel. Robert sold newspapers. Then the hotel burned down, with all their possessions.

“What I remember even more than the hardships of those years was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination,” he wrote. “Experiencing at first hand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive as well.”

Butler spent his life passing on that painful but profound gift to thousands of other people. I feel fortunate to have been one of them.

Sick of Journalists? Read This Declaration of Independence

Journalism, as it is practised in the United States today, is largely the work of technocrats, trained in expensive journalism schools. There is another kind of reporting, that of Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida B. Wells and the old school muckrakers. They were not just fact gatherers, and they hadn’t gone to school to learn their trade; they were journeymen, fellow workers with a passion for making America live up to just the sorts of values we celebrate on Independence Day–values which all too often ring hollow.

Djelloul Marbrook is a poet, fiction writer, and retired newspaper editor (Providence Journal, Baltimore Sun, Winston-Salem Journal, Washington Star). He blogs at djelloulmarbrook.com. Marbrook’s got a plan that frees journalism from the confines of mainstream publications–which in addition to being circumscribed and commercialized, also have no way of paying for themselves, and are dying a slow death. 

The concept of citizen journalism is nothing new. But Marbrook brings a new twist to the idea: he wants to harnass “one of our most spectacular natural resources, the aging.” Retired old people have the skills and the time, he says, to “undertake the kind of restlessly inquiring journalism that has been sold out for quick profit.” I’d argue that there’s another advantage, as well– something that happens to some of us when we reach a certain age. We’ve just lived too long to take any more crap, and while we may be creaky and forgetful, our bullshit detectors are keener than they’ve ever been.

Here, then, is Marbrook’s modest proposal for an army of muckraking geezers:

Here we are, a graying nation overlooking what may be one of our most spectacular natural resources, the aging. Instead of imagining what they can do for us, we can’t imagine how to care for them.It has been many years since idealism was a vital force in our newsrooms and the offices of media owners. Idealism has long since been trumped by the next dollar and the one after that. Newsrooms have been shrunk to shells of their former selves.media have dropped, to investigate local, county and state government, to look under all the carpets that now bulge with wrongdoing.

No amount of campaign finance reform or revising the two-party system, as California has just done, will ever be as effective as scrutiny of local government. Only the vigilance of an informed electorate will rescue us from big money and ignorant or reckless candidates. Money, here as everywhere else, is at the root of the problem. The media giants that have gobbled up the local and regional press have decided that it’s too expensive to cover local affairs properly. The people themselves must step into this vacuum, and there is a way to do it.

Among our retirees are the forensic accountants, the financial analysts, the medical people, the conservationists, the scientists—the vast range of talents and disciplines that reflect our society—who could undertake the kind of restlessly inquiring journalism that has been sold out for quick profit.

It is a myth that editors and writers are the only ones who can conduct such inquiries. We don’t need polish as much as we need truth. And remember—any group of retirees is very likely to include a writer or an editor or two, someone who can polish the findings of others, just as rewrite people used to do in newsrooms.

What has changed that might make this idea feasible? The hyper-commercialization of the press, of course, but also the advent of the Internet. And it is precisely this kind of development, this kind of social use of the Internet, that the communications giants are now trying to prevent by bribing legislators into giving them the right to limit access to the Internet by imposed pricing tiers.

We have all read stories about retirees looking for creative ways to express themselves, to challenge themselves. Well, here is a challenge that could actually change the country in a very big way. Never mind the Tea Party with its bags of resentment, here is something positive to do, and it doesn’t depend on ideology. Yes, you will have disagreements with your collaborators, just as news people have always had, and often your opinions will be sorely tested by the facts, but remember that journalism is not about the proof of an idea, it’s about truth. Some notions, some hunches will prove out, some won’t. Some good guys will turn out to be bad guys and some unlikable guys will turn out to be the good guys.

You think your local or county government is corrupt? Do something about it. You can. Gather a group of people, not like-minded ideologues, but skilled people of every persuasion, pick something to look into, and do it, post it on the web and watch the monkeys fall from the trees. Worried about libel? I bet you can find a retired lawyer to vet your posts.

This can be done all around the nation, and what will result is a nation dotted with the kind of feisty local news organizations that we once had before the corporate giants chewed them up and spit them out as trivial mush.

Start anywhere, with whatever interests your group. Make a list and see what excites your colleagues.

Or, if you’re a loner, fine, go it alone.

Think of it—an online newspaper that has guts, that isn’t bribed by its advertisers, that can take pictures, investigate events, and publish hour by hour. It’s a revolution waiting to happen. And it won’t take a huge investment. No bankers, no licenses.You don’t need journalism degrees, you need nerve, verve, will power, and the skills you acquired in long careers, whether in nursing or mechanics or policing or accounting. As many skills are relevant as there are in society, because journalism is about everything.

You don’t need to join another fractious, angry splinter group. You don’t need to picket. You’re stronger, much stronger, than that. You can actually force the politicians and corporations to change by exposing what they’re doing and not doing. And that is exactly why the media are now owned by the corporate giants, so they won’t have to worry about scrutiny.

There are few limits to what you can do. Some of you can write about gardening or astrology while others of you pore through records in town hall or the school administration. Whatever your creative impulse is, there is an outlet for it in a citizen journalism.Remember this: if we do not exercise our right to examine public records, that right will wither, and soon the government—whether local, state or federal—will claim that we don’t have the right. That is why what has befallen local journalism in our country is so disastrous. A right that is not exercised soon vanishes…

What I am saying, as an old-timer and a retired journalist myself, is that you retirees can do it. And, if you find the right business minds among you, you might even be able to create viable business models that will eventually create jobs in journalism. You can do it, I promise you. There is nothing magical about journalism. It’s just dogged work, the will to find out, and a reasonable mastery of the language. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t need credentials. But it needs the high ideals that corporate greed has stomped.

 

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Young and Old Starve in Niger Amidst Markets Filled With Food

Photo: Oxfam

International aid agencies have issued emergency appeals about the rising famine in the West African nations of Niger and Chad, which could eventually threaten millions. The Guardian reports today

Starving people in drought-stricken west Africa are being forced to eat leaves and collect grain from ant hills, say aid agencies, warning that 10 million people face starvation across the region.

With food prices soaring and malnourished livestock dying, villagers were turning to any sources of food to stay alive, said Charles Bambara, Oxfam officer for the west African region. “People are eating wild fruit and leaves, and building ant hills just to capture the tiny amount of grain that the ants collect inside…

In Niger, which the United Nations classifies as the world’s least developed country, starving families are eating flour mixed with wild leaves and boiled plants. More than 7 million people – almost half the population – currently face food insecurity in the country, making it the hardest hit by the crisis. According to UN agencies, 200,000 children need treatment for malnutrition in Niger alone. “Niger is at crisis point now and we need to act quickly before this crisis becomes a full-blown humanitarian disaster,” said Caroline Gluck, an Oxfam representative in the country.

The real tragedy–and travesty–lies in the fact that there is food available in Niger, but starving people cannot afford to buy it.

With food prices spiralling, people are being forced to slaughter malnourished livestock, traditionally the only form of income. “When you walk through the markets, you can see that there is food here. The problem is that the ability to buy it has disappeared. People here depend on livestock to support themselves, but animals are being killed on the edge of exhaustion, and that means they are being sold for far less money. And on top of that, the cost of food basics has risen,” explained Gluck. Compounding the crisis, thousands of animals have starved to death as villagers use animal fodder to feed themselves…

“This is just the beginning of the traditional hunger period, and people have already been forced to sell their livestock. This is very early for the alarm bells to be ringing, before Niger has even reached the start of the most critical part of the food calendar. You can imagine three to four months down the line how shocking the situation will be,” said Gluck…”West Africa has traditionally not been very high on the developed world’s priority list. The question now is how many people do we have to see die before the world will act?” she said.

In “Freemarkets and Famine in Niger,” the Guardian‘s Jeevan Vasagar writes that during the most recent famine in Niger, in 2005, “free market dogma stopped the government giving out free food to the starving.” He warns that this disaster could easily be repeated. Other analysts blamed the 2005 famine in large part on the economic policies of the IMF and EU, which contributed to a precipitous rise in the prices of staple grains.

This year, global economic factors, combined with a recent coup in Niger, are once again compounding a crisis caused by drought, and the toll in lives will be high. Just how high depends upon what the international community and Niger’s government do next.  One aid official told the Guardian that if relief does not come quickly, the crisis could reach the proportions of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, “during which an estimated 1 million people died due to drought and a slow response to the crisis both within the country and internationally.”

Photo: Rachel Palmer/Save the Children

The photographs already making their way out of Niger are heartbreaking and horrifying. Like the news reports, they tend to focus on children, who make up half of Niger’s population. Nearly 380,000 children are at risk of starvation in the next few months, according to Save the Children. 

In the 2005 Niger famine, the UN identified the elderly and the sick, along with children, as the “most vulnerable groups,” who would be “on the brink of being wiped out” without substantial aid. The Guardian reported that older people were often the last to be fed even when help arrived: “As aid agencies focus their scant resources on saving malnourished babies and children, the elderly are the forgotten victims of the crisis in Niger.” Older women, in particular, usually fell at the end of the line.

Oxfam is taking donations for its emergency response in West Africa here. Save the Children’s emergency appeal for Niger is here. To support emergency aid programs specifically targeting the needs of old people, donations can be made to HelpAge International.