Richard Nixon photo

Remarks to the White House Conference on Aging.

December 02, 1971

Dr. Fiemining, Chief Justice Warren, all of the distinguished guests on the platform, and all of the distinguished delegates to this Conference:

First, I want you to know how very delighted we were to have you--2,700, I understand--as guests last night at the White House. As I came in by helicopter from Chicago, after speaking to the 4-H convention there, I saw many in the windows looking out. I only wished I could have come down, but I realized if I shook hands with 2,700, that would be more than the 4 hours that Chief Justice Warren1 took on Monday night, and I wouldn't get here this morning. I wish I could have, though, to welcome all of you from all of the States of this Nation, all of you with your deep commitment.

1 Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States 1953-69.

Now I want to talk about this Conference, the White House Conference. I want to talk about it very candidly, in terms not of the past or the present, the resolutions that you will present, but in terms of the future.

Down in the Library of Congress there is a whole floor, with many, many stacks of volumes of the records of White House conferences--conferences on the aged, conferences on young people, conferences on health. On almost any subject you can imagine, there has been a White House conference. And every President has participated in them; every President opens them or closes them, as the case may be.

Those volumes, so very many of them, when I have seen them down there, just gathered dust. And you wonder what happened; was it worth it? And all of you, as you come to the end of this Conference, must wonder, after all the work you have done, after all the recommendations you have made: Is it going to end here, or is this a beginning?

That is what I want to talk about. I would be less than candid if I were not to say that many White House conferences are more cosmetics than the real thing. They talk about the problem, give people an outlet--and, of course, that is a good thing--but recommendations usually are not put into practice as often as they should be.

When this Conference was called, as John Martin and Arthur Flemming will tell you, I told them I wanted to know what we could do. And in preparing my remarks today, I wanted to speak specifically to the things that you recommended, and to speak, also, to how we could follow up.

I do not want the volumes--and there will be volumes on this Conference--simply to gather dust in the Library of Congress or in the office of the President. As long as I am here, I will go over and shake off the dust myself to find out what was said. But Dr. Flemming told me before I came in here just what he said to you when he introduced me: that each one of you has made a very important pledge this morning, a specific commitment to action in the post-conference year. I am here to join you in that pledge. This means that I am going to give my close, personal attention to the recommendations of this Conference.

I have asked Dr. Flemming to stay on. We really cannot afford him, but he comes really as a volunteer. He is not only going to be Chairman of the Conference in the follow-up period, but also as a special consultant on aging, so that I can take up these matters personally with him, as well as with John Martin, who, as you know, is my special assistant on aging.

Now, Dr. Flemming is known to you from having presided over this Conference. He is also known as a great educator. I knew him as a member of the Cabinet. Beneath that very genteel exterior is one of the most tenacious men I have ever known. So you have got a good representative there speaking up for your cause.

The second step that I have taken is that I have directed that your recommendations be put at the top of the agenda of our Cabinet-level Committee on Aging, on which Dr. Flemming also plays the leading role.

And finally, I have asked Dr. Flemming to create a post-conference board to act as your agent in following up on your proposals. When matters that affect the interests of older Americans are being discussed in the White House, I am determined that the voice of older Americans will be heard. That is my commitment to you.

Now, as we consider your suggestions, we will be guided by this conviction: Any action which enhances the dignity of older Americans enhances the dignity of all Americans, for unless the American dream comes true for our older generation, it cannot be complete for any generation.

This is true, first, because we all grow old. The younger generation today will be the older generation tomorrow. But more than that, the entire Nation has a high stake in a better life for its older citizens simply because we need you. We need the resources which you alone can offer.

We are speaking, after all, of a proven generation, one that has brought this country through the most turbulent period in human history. Your skills, your wisdom, your values, and your faith--these are among the most valuable resources this Nation possesses.

This country will have to be at its best if we are to meet the challenge of competition in the world of the seventies, and we cannot be at our best if we keep our most experienced players on the bench. I am not speaking of the Washington Redskins, either, in that respect. Yet, in recent years all of us know a gulf has been opening between older Americans and the rest of our people. This gulf is the product of a great social revolution which has weakened the traditional bonds of family, neighborhood, and community. For millions of older Americans, the result has been a growing sense of isolation and insecurity.

We have to change that. Younger and older Americans need one another. We must find ways to bring the generations together again.

In addressing the challenges before us, let us begin where most of you begin--and that is the problem of inadequate income. We have to begin there because if we move in this front, all the other battles will be easier, and if we fail to move in the income front, the other battles--and there are many others that I will discuss in my remarks this morning--will be impossible.

That is why it is so important that the Congress approve one of the most important bills to come before it in many years--the bill known as H.R. 1.

Now, let me talk to you a bit about H.R. 1. It is generally known as welfare reform. I presented it to the country in a radio-television address almost 2 1/2 years ago. In that period since it was presented to the country, it has been debated and talked about, passed one House, still languishes in the Senate, no prospects for this session, and apparently not too much prospect even for the next session, unless something happens in terms of waking the Congress up to the fact that the American people want it.

Let me tell you what H.R. 1 does. You hear about welfare reform. Well, believe me, we need it. We have a system at the present in this country, a system in which, under our present welfare rules, in many States it makes it more profitable for a man not to work than to work, and it rewards a man for leaving his family, rather than staying with his family. When you have that kind of a system, you ought to abolish it and get something else.

So our new program provides for work incentives and work requirements. It also provides for needy children and provides for those needy children without the effect of the present welfare program, which is so degrading on those children and mars them for life.

Most of us have only heard of H.R. 1 in terms of welfare. But what is in it for older people? I think we have forgotten many of those things. Let me tell you how much is at stake for older citizens in H.R. 1, and why it must be top priority.

For the first time in our history, it would put a national floor under the annual income of every older American. Now, some may say it ought to be higher, some may say it ought to be earlier; but the point is, it will be done. We need a national floor under the income of every older American. H.R. 1 does that.

Second, for the first time in our history, it would make social security benefits inflation-proof. This is something that I have always believed in. It does not make sense to have social security benefits constantly behind inflation. If we have inflation, the benefits should go up with it, and H.R. 1 provides for that.

It would allow social security recipients to earn more money from their own work. It would raise benefit levels, especially for widows. I have also asked the Congress to include in H.R. 1 a proposal for eliminating the $5.60 monthly fee now charged for Part B of Medicare.

Now let me get into the numbers. These numbers are so big that they may not, of course, be very impressive when we think of $200 billion budgets, and I am going to be working on that budget over this next weekend. But H.R. 1, as it now stands, would provide $5 ½ billion in additional Federal benefits for older Americans--5½ billion more.

Let me point out something: If they had passed it 2 years ago, we would have had it then. You can see why the Congress needs to quit talking and start acting on H.R. 1 just as quickly as possible. This would be $3 billion in increased social security benefits and, when it is fully effective, another $2½ billion in new benefits to persons with lower incomes. And a proposal to eliminate the monthly Medicare fee would enrich the $5½ billion package by an additional $1 1/4 billion, so that is the equivalent of an additional 5-percent increase in social security.

So you can see how much is at stake in this one proposal, which has been there for over 2 years, which has not been acted upon, and which needs to be acted upon.

I have made a commitment to you. We need your help. Let your Congressman, let your Senator, know that before the next election you want action on H.R. 1. I think we ought to have it.

Now I would like to go to a second subject which is related to income. It is the other side of the coin. That is the subject of taxes. We are supporting a series of tax reform proposals which would enable a single person aged 65 or older to receive up to $5,100 of tax-free income. A married couple, both of whom are 65 or older, would receive over $8,000 in tax-free income.

However--and now I come to one that will be very close, I am sure, to the hearts of most of the people here, because when I met with representatives of this group before this Conference was convened, this subject was raised by every one of those present. That is the property tax. It is not related to income, but it is a tax which keeps going up and up and up; whereas, an older person's income may be even going down.

Property tax collections have increased by 40 percent in the last 5 years alone. Now, here is where older Americans come in. We have checked and found that 70 percent of older Americans own their own homes. For many, these homes represent a lifetime of careful saving, and yet, because of property taxes, the same home which has been a symbol of their independence often becomes the cause of their impoverishment.

Take the 30 percent that don't own their homes. Those who rent their homes often bear an unfair burden since property tax increases are often passed along in the form of higher rents.

The inequity of the property tax is often the greater because it takes money from those who have already educated their own children, and uses it largely for the education of other children.

I received a letter recently from a woman whose parents brought her and five other children to this country from Switzerland many years ago. They settled in California as homesteaders. They were full of hope and pride. Over the years that followed, they made their dreams come true. But today, many, many years later, things have changed so much that Mrs. Ewing begins her letter to me by saying, "Was it just an empty dream after all?"

Her father, at 73, is too ill, too tired, to work. His family is grown and scattered. To meet his real estate taxes, he is now being forced to sell the property for which he worked so hard and so long. Then she goes on to say, "If this is really the country I grew up believing it to be, these inhumane property tax laws must be changed."

She is right, and they should be changed. That is why we need a complete overhaul of our property taxes and of our whole system of financing public education, because the property tax, as you know, in California as well as in many other States, is the primary tax which can and must be used at this time for financing public education.

Our revenue sharing proposals which were made a year ago, and which still have not been acted upon, can help relieve the pressure on property taxes, and older Americans have a large stake in enacting those proposals. But I believe we have to move in another front, more directly on the problem of property taxes. I am, therefore, working with our Domestic Council, and working specifically with Secretary of the Treasury Connally, preparing specific proposals to ease the crushing burden of property taxes for older Americans and for all Americans.

The President's Commission on School Finance, which I appointed last year, has been carefully studying a range of possible remedies. These remedies will involve large sums of money. But we are prepared, however, to make the hard decisions we are going to have to make to provide property tax relief.

The time has come, in this subject as in others, to stop talking about the impact of property taxes on older Americans, to act in their behalf and in behalf of other citizens in similar circumstances.

Now, I want to go to another matter that I know has had consideration here, and one on which I find very fundamental agreement with your conclusions. That is the inadequacy of private pension plans. One-half of our work force is not even enrolled in such a plan, and many of those who are enrolled have inadequate or unreliable coverage.

I will therefore propose to the Congress a new program to reform our private pension system. Here are some of the reforms: They will include measures designed to expand pension coverage, to ensure that pension funds are soundly managed, and also, I will recommend new laws to require the vesting of pensions so that an individual who works in a job, has money invested in a pension, and then moves from that job, doesn't lose what he has put in. He is entitled to that and should get it when he retires.

Now, there is one other item where I am going to talk about something that involves not what the Congress and what the Administration can do for older Americans, but what you can do for the country and for yourselves.

I am sure you have been reading and hearing in your newspapers, on television, and on radio a lot about our new economic policy--the freeze on wages and prices for 90 days, Phase 2, some of the arguments that have taken place with regard to what the application should be. Let me say that as far as this program is concerned, its primary design is to stop the rise in the cost of living. As far as this program is concerned, it is inevitable that anything that we do is going to cause some sacrifice on the part of some Americans.

For example, some labor leaders, not all, but some of them object to the fact that labor increases and wage increases cannot be as high as they would like. Some business leaders are objecting to the fact that we have laid down regulations in which their profit margins are not allowed to be as high as they would like. And some stockholders are objecting to the fact that we have laid down regulations where their dividend payments cannot be as high as they would like.

Let me say, I would like to have a program that would satisfy them all, because it is not pleasant to have any segment of the population object to a program that we have adopted. But let me lay it right on the line. Where a wage increase or a profit increase or a dividend increase can be controlled and the result will be stopping the rise in the cost of living for all Americans, that is worth doing, and that is what we plan to do.

The support for this program has been stronger perhaps, among older Americans, according to all the polls, than among all others. On the other hand, 70 percent of Americans do support it. We ask your continued support, because no matter how much the pensions may be, no matter how much payments for social security may go up, if the rise in the cost of living eats it up it doesn't make any difference. That is why this program is one in which those who are retired, living on relatively fixed income, have the biggest stake of all Americans, and we hope you will continue to support it right to the hilt.

Now, I have been talking about income and taxes and how we control prices, but even with higher income, we all know that many older Americans face problems beyond their individual control. I am going to talk for a moment about the one million Americans who live in nursing homes.

I can talk with great feeling about this because my own mother was in a nursing home. She was very ill and had a stroke during the last 2 years of her life. It was a very good nursing home, and I will always be thankful that the nurses there treated her just as I would have wanted to treat her if I could have been there. Many of these nursing homes, like the one my mother was in and like the one my 91-year-old Aunt Edith is in out in Riverside, California, are ones where they receive excellent care from people who care about them. But many do not. There are some bad nursing homes, some inadequate ones, and there is little that the people that are in them can do about it.

Partially, it is a question of money, being able to afford the better ones; partially it is a question of regulation. Where it is a question of regulation, we certainly can do something about it. That is why I announced last summer an eight-point program for improving our Nation's nursing homes, for cutting off funds to those which remain substandard.

Our primary objective is the upgrading of nursing homes, but we are not going to hesitate to cut off funds from homes which are hopelessly substandard.

Furthermore, we will take the initiative in making sure that public and private resources are available to provide alternative arrangements for the victims of such homes; to cut off the funds for the substandard ones and then just let the people out, that is no answer. We must find an alternative, and we are planning to do exactly that.

But when we speak of the million who live in nursing homes, we want it realized that for every person in a nursing home, we have 20 times as many older people who are not in nursing homes. The greatest need is to help more older Americans to go on living in their own homes. Income programs, such as H.R. 1, tax reforms--they can help achieve this, because if the individuals have the funds, then they can retain their own homes. But so can a number of other additional decisions which we have already made.

We want to begin by increasing the present budget of the Administration on Aging nearly fivefold--to $100 million. Now, you wonder where I got that number. I must say, I heard from a number of you and I heard from Arthur Flemming. He didn't know about the number until this morning because it was $80 million last night, and I decided, why not $100 million. One hundred million dollars is needed for reasons that I am going to indicate as to what I expect from this.

But let me put it in another context. Let us put it in terms of priorities. The Congress, for example, at the present time has under consideration a tax bill. It is a tax bill that has some very good provisions in it. It has one in which there is disagreement, honest disagreement, one where I take a different position from some others. But there is one provision in that bill that provides for between $50 and $100 million to go for the purpose of paying the campaign expenses of an individual who is running as the nominee of his party for President of the United States. Now, my friends, just let me say this: It is very important that campaigns be adequately financed, but I say, rather than to have the taxpayers' money used for the purpose of financing a candidate's campaign for election, that money should be used for the purpose of allowing the elected President to keep his campaign promises once he gets into office.

Now, let's see what this $100 million is going to do. We can give special emphasis to services that will help people live decent and dignified lives in their own homes, services such as home health aides, homemaker and nutrition services, home delivered meals, transportation assistance. Much of this new money will be used to help marshal existing and expanding resources more effectively at the local level.

Toward this end, I will direct the Social Security Administration to provide an information center in each of its 889 district and branch offices to help explain all Federal programs which aid the elderly. These offices, of course, will supplement the State offices which already are doing a very fine job in this respect.

Then, there are two additional administrative decisions which will help older Americans remain in their own homes. The first will make housing money more readily available to older citizens to purchase homes in a variety of settings, including condominium apartments and retirement communities. Secretary Romney, who is also a very tenacious, evangelistic man in our Cabinet, is going to see that that is done, I can assure you.

The second will require that Federal grants will provide services for older persons and also provide for the transportation they need to take advantage of these services.

Now, I turn to another subject--and if I seem to be moving from place to place, believe me, you moved from place to place throughout this Conference, and I am trying to cover most of the major subjects in which you have expressed an interest. Some of the best service programs for older Americans are those which give older Americans a chance to serve. Thousands of older Americans have found that their work in hospitals, in churches, in parks, and schools gives them a new sense of pride and purpose even as it contributes to the lives of others.

Federal programs to provide such opportunities have proved remarkably successful at the demonstration level, but that is all they have been up to this point. We are going to change it. We are going to move from demonstration to establish these programs on a broader national basis. Therefore, I am going to request that the Retired Senior Volunteers program be tripled to $ 15 million, so that an additional 50,000 volunteers can be involved. I have directed that the Foster Grandparents program be doubled to $25 million, and I will ask that this program be altered so that Foster Grandparents can work with older persons as well as with children.

I have also ordered that our jobs program for older persons with low incomes be doubled to $26 million. Under this program, projects such as Green Thumb and Senior Aides have demonstrated that older Americans can make valuable contributions in health, education, and community service projects even as they earn additional income.

Let me say: Every older American can be proud that you have made these programs work in recent years. That is why we can double this one, triple that one, make a permanent program out of what was previously a trial or demonstration one. These decisions mean that you will be able to work in more places and for more people.

Now, I have spoken this morning about some of the immediate steps I am taking as part of my commitment, with your commitment, to action. We are proud of these initiatives, but we are not content to rest on them. We are going to build on them. That is why I have outlined a mechanism for following up on this Conference, one which will allow us to take the fullest advantage of the excellent work which you have done.

Any discussion of recommendations for dealing with the problems of the aged would not be complete without recognizing the strong support expressed at this Conference for extending Medicare coverage to include prescription drugs and for accelerating the rate at which the income floor comes into effect under H.R.1.

Now, as you know, these programs involve very, very substantial budget problems for the Administration. Therefore, they are ones that will need a great deal of consideration and study. Because of the interest which you have expressed in these programs, I have directed the Domestic Council, under John Ehrlichman who has already addressed you, to carefully consider both proposals, to make recommendations to me at an early date.

Your work is not yet over. You have a message to take home with you from this Conference, a message which must now be heard in every community in this land. Let me tell you what it is.

We need a new national attitude toward older people in this country. That attitude must be one which recognizes that America, whatever it does for its older citizens, fully appreciates what our older citizens can do for America.

Only a new national attitude toward aging can end the throwaway psychology which I understand was so graphically demonstrated in the film you saw Sunday night. Only a new attitude toward aging can reopen the doors of opportunity which have too often been closing on older men and women.

To borrow another phrase from your multimedia presentation--only a new attitude toward aging can keep older Americans from "slipping through the cracks."

We are entering a period when people will be retiring even earlier from their regular jobs, and when it will, therefore, be more important than ever to recognize that retirement from work does not mean retirement from life. This concept must be at the heart of our new national attitude toward aging.

I see a great number of people in the White House, young people, middle-aged, older people, not nearly as many as I would like to see, but every day some come through to receive an award, recognition, and some just want to come in and see the President for some reason. A few months ago I met with a remarkable man. His name was George Black. For more than 80 years, this man has been making bricks by hand in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, his own special way of doing it. He is a master craftsman.

When he came in to see me, he didn't look it, but he told me he was 93 years old. But his productive years were not over. So our Government, under one of the programs that we fortunately had, sent this remarkable man to a country that needed to learn about that almost forgotten skill of making bricks by hand. George Black went to Guyaria, in South America, so that he could share his skills with the people of that less developed country.

When I asked him about his trip, this is what he said: "I've always asked the Lord to let my last days be my best days. I feel like He's answering my prayers."

George Black's prayer is the prayer of millions of Americans--"to let my last days be my best days." And for them, as for him, its answer depends not only on what they are given but on what they continue to give.

Older Americans have much to give this country. The best thing this country can give to them is the chance to be a part of it, a chance to play a continuing role in the great American adventure.

In a real sense, therefore, this Conference is just beginning, for all of us are going home with promises to keep. As we keep those promises, as we fulfill our commitments to action, we will make this Conference the great new beginning you have talked about this week. Let us make the last days the best days for all Americans.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:33 a.m. in the Washington Hilton Hotel.
An advance text of the President's remarks was released on the same day.

A White House announcement of the designation of Arthur S. Flemming as Chairman of the 1971 White House Conference on Aging was released on April 23, 1971, and is printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 7, P. 674). On the same day, the White House also released the transcript of a news conference on Dr. Flemming's appointment by Elliot L. Richardson, Secretary, and John B. Martin, Commissioner, Administration on Aging, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and Dr. Flemming.

Richard Nixon, Remarks to the White House Conference on Aging. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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