I read today that the journalist Fred Branfman died this week in Budapest at the age of 72. Reports are that he spent his time between southern California and Hungary. It reminded me of my time in Budapest in the early and mid 1990s, at a restaurant/bar I use to hang out in just off Rakoczi Avenue in Central Budapest. Branfman, of course is known for his coverage of the bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. I recall that a tall, smirking ex-pat whose name I forgot amid the haze of years and copious amounts of beer brewed in the bar I have long since forgotten the man’s name.
Those were the days when Budapest was a bit edgier; still shaking off the dust and moroseness of the Soviet era. I was there 5 times, mostly in autumn and once in late winter. I recall the city in shades of gray, eternally damp and struggling between two identities. One was that old post-communist era exhaustion and the other the promise and anxiety of capitalism. No one was more concerned about entering that new world than retirees, or pensioners.
While there is little that extols any virtue in the communist system, the origins of that basic ideology was born of ancient communal societies, peasantry and extended family and tribal communes, none of which, except among native Americans was ever part of the American experience. One positive aspect of the Soviet system, at the very least was their basic care for the elderly. There was at least the basic provision for housing and income in communist countries. With the collapse of the Soviet system a vacuum occurred and capitalism flooded like Katrina into New Orleans to replace the communist economic system. Least prepared to weather that vacuum were the pensioners.
I recall seeing them, the elderly. There were little cantinas in cities throughout southern and eastern Europe in the early 90s. Here the poorest could get a cheap but warm meal, usually soup or cabbage or stew for a few Forint, the pre-Euro Hungarian currency. Nearly all of the patrons were elderly. I had visited a number throughout post-Communist Europe and found them to be terribly hopeless places. A communist official in the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, Serbia took me to one in the center of the city, where I had to literally shield my bowl of chicken stew from cockroaches running across the table. Governments bankrupted in the transition between once strongly and ideologically defined economic spheres slashed pensions. Even by 1992 and 93 there were stories of the elderly, no longer able to heat their homes after being all but cut off from pensions, like our social security, freezing to death in their apartments. Capitalism had come to Eastern Europe in the cruelest and saddest of ways.
Fast forward to the United States and I find a deafening silence about the fate of retired persons in this country. Companies have jettisoned pensions and this country has not put into place protections that would have seen adjustments for inflation to social security. 5 million, or about 10%, of the country’s impoverished are older than 65 years old. There are eight states that show higher than the US national average for food insecurity, with Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas leading the pack. But the problem is national, and is growing rapidly, products of demographics, the economy, but also a virtual abandonment of the elderly by government. While taxes are cut, forgotten or forgiven to corporations and the wealthy, leaving the top 10% of the nation holding more than 90% of the nation’s wealth, resources to protect the most vulnerable in our society have been siphoned off
That leaves many retirees in the nation now less interested in quality of life and more concerned with dignity in death. Is that where we’ve come? Listen to FOX News and they’ll tell you that the retirement age in America should be raised to 75, by people who have never worked 10 or 20 or 40 years in a physical working class job and drag themselves from a job into retirement with herniated disks, blown shoulders, shot knees, and who worked 60 hours a week with overtime to make the mortgage and afford insurance and now need a rest, or to spend time with grand kids and get caught up on a little time with the wife in these final few years.
America entered into a new economy from the 90s. Rather it was forced into a new economy. Before then people took a job believing, like marriage, they would remain there until retirement. Suddenly all of those young neo-capitalists were defining a new economy based on short-term returns, no loyalty and a predatory rationalism that allowed for the looting of 401ks and pensions. This group gave rise to the hedge fund managers and the generation of capitalists who went to war to loot the economy while the rest of us were stunned and distracted by September 11, Iraq and Afghanistan. They looted social security and then told us that it’s bankrupt, and when we fought back, they redoubled with SSI is going to be bankrupt, and the only way to keep from freezing in your apartment is to give it over to the capitalists.
Those who are just retiring, or about to be are from the generation that helped define the American dream. And now they have been betrayed. Their dreams of a future in which growing old gracefully or with respect and dignity have been stolen, just as surely as those Hungarian pensioners shivering in their unheated apartments or spending their last Forint at a soup kitchen. When America is defined, it is those people who must be considered.
What are we offering them? Are we offering any appreciation, any respect, or have we decided that the last years of our lives will be decided on who have and who have not? Frank Branfman died a modestly wealthy man in Budapest Hungary, his other home. He passed in dignity, without fearing what might happen to his pets, that all he worked for who be hauled out to a dumpster or sold in second hand stores anonymously. He never had to do the math of how to make ends meet with a monthly social security check, or hope that the cat would die first so that it wouldn’t be left alone. For too many of America’s seniors that is the hard truth, and that is wrong…
WC Turck is an author, artist, playwright and talk radio host in Chicago. He has been called the most dangerous voice on the Left. He is currently working on a new book “Shoot Down: An unflinching look at the events leading up to the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17.” His first novel, “Broken” was recommended by NAMI for its treatment of PTSD. In 2006 he published “Everything for Love,” a memoir of his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. He wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” He works with the homeless and foreclosure victims in Chicago. He partners in a weekly radio show dedicated to issues, society and politics with cohost, activist and artist Brian Murray For more information, past shows, videos and articles, visit www.revolutioandbeer.com