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Senior Citizen Discounts Are Affirmative Action for the Wealthy

Price breaks cost business billions of dollars and breed resentment among the young

What if private businesses and government agencies offered discounts for white people? Movie theaters, restaurants, the national parks, hotels, car rental agencies, airlines - just prove you're a Caucasian and you get a 5 to 30 percent discount.

It would be universally denounced as unfair and racist. So why does the nation put up with discounts for senior citizens - the wealthiest sector of the American public?

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Lots of companies offer discounts.

Amtrak advertises that "seniors always save an extra 15 percent."

Delta, American, and United Airlines offer senior discounts. Many businesses offer senior citizen days or parts of the business day given to price breaks for seniors.

Many seniors even seem to think they're entitled to discounts. A reporter for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel quotes a 24-year-old: "I'm in the cable business, and these older people in mansions are always asking me, 'Don't we get a discount? Don't we get free cable?'"

Limited incomes or wealthiest group?

One argument for senior discounts is that seniors have limited incomes. This is a fallacy. When Medicare was passed in 1964, senior citizens were among the poorest members of American society. Now, however, seniors have the greatest levels of wealth among American age groups.

Census Bureau data indicate that a higher percentage of those over 55 own vehicles, primary residences, investment real estate, and businesses than any other age group.

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Census Bureau data also show that only 10.1 percent of those 65 years to 75 years have incomes below the poverty line - compared with 21.8 percent under 18, and 18 percent of those 18 to 24.

If American business truly wished to assist the disadvantaged, seniors would be the last group to receive discounts. Being black, Hispanic, or native American is a far better predictor of poverty.

Others argue that seniors deserve discounts because they live on "fixed incomes." This is an extraordinarily weak argument. Anyone on a salary or a certain number of work hours per week is on a "fixed income." The president of the United Sates is on a "fixed income" - $200,000 a year. "Fixed income" is not a synonym for being poor; neither is being a senior citizen.

Seniors' power

So why do senior citizen discounts persist?

The first reason is the political and economic power of seniors. The American Association of Retired People is the nation's most feared lobby group, with 33 million members. Politicians are loathe to suggest major changes to Social Security or Medicare, regardless of the looming crisis.

Another reason senior discounts persist is that everyone loves their grandparents, and everyone expects to get old.

But not everyone does get old. There are striking differences in mortality based on race. While white male life expectancy is 73.1 years, black male life expectancy is only 64.6 years. For white women, the figure is 79.5 years; for black women, it's 73.7 years.

While some argue for discounts because seniors are supposedly poor, others argue for them because they're rich. Cold logic suggests that corporations would rather have the business of wealthy whites than poor minorities. This perspective supports the point that senior discounts serve to feather the nest of those who already have plenty of golden eggs.

American society is based on equal protection under the law. We waged a struggle for civil rights over the doctrine of "separate but equal." We've undergone tremendous social change to bring about greater equality between the sexes. In California, it's even illegal to charge different rates for male and female haircuts and dry cleaning jobs.

Senior citizen discounts are affirmative action for the wealthy. They cost American business billions of dollars. They breed resentment among the young. They are part of the battle over generational equity. They are probably unconstitutional.

This is a class-action lawsuit crying out to be filed. It's time to retire the senior discount.

* Ted Rueter is 10 years shy of eligibility for membership with the American Association of Retired People. He is the author of "The Politics of Race: African Americans and the Political System" (M.E. Sharpe).

Will Boomers get their due?

Attention aging baby boomers: Don't be too sure your retirement years will be full of bargain burgers, cheap flicks, and discount airfares.

Senior citizen discounts originated in the 1960s as a form of corporate charity "when older people were perceived as poor and needy," says George Moschis, director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies at Georgia State University.

His studies show that aside from buffing corporate images, the now-ubiquitous discount programs aren't that effective at building business - the discounts, for example, don't persuade senior consumers to brand-switch.

But as the wealthy baby boom inflates the ranks of those eligible for discounts, companies will be recalculating the equation. Can they afford the coming run on their charity? Or could the increased volume of senior citizen business increase profits?

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