My Turn: Alaska's seniors are a $2 billion industry

Posted: Monday, May 12, 2003

It really doesn't make much sense, does it? Here Gov. Murkowski runs for office on a platform of economic development and, within a month of taking office, tells the Legislature to cripple an industry that generates billions of dollars of revenue for the state each year. (And, yes, that's right - we're talking billions with a "B.")

The industry in question: the senior industry.

The McDowell Group, Inc., of Juneau, completed a study in December 2000 called "Issues Affecting the Economic Well-Being of Alaska Seniors." It was prepared for the Alaska Commission on Aging. Among its startling conclusions were these:

• "Senior income is responsible for at least $2.4 billion of (Alaska's) total $17.7 billion in 1999 personal income."

• "The $2.4 million for seniors is more than the estimated impacts of employment created by most of the state's leading industries. These include the petroleum industry ($2 billion), the seafood industry ($1.2 billion), and the tourism, mining and forest-products industries combined ($1.6 billion)."

In other words, although the income and impact of a single Alaska senior may be modest, the cumulative economic effect of having these people in Alaska is hugely beneficial.

Of course, the McDowell Group study was based on a year 2000 enrollment of 21,000 seniors receiving the Longevity Bonus. The bonus has been closed to new applicants since 1997 and these days, if the governor's figures are correct, there are only 18,000 recipients, an 8.5 percent decrease in less than three years.

Apparently us old timers are dying off at the rate of well more than a thousand a year. As we all get older that rate will accelerate.

So, be patient, governor. We'll get this burdensome expenditure off your shoulders and down to zero in no time.

But, in the meantime, what can the state, specifically the Legislature, do to protect the $2 billion industry that seniors represent?

It's a no-brainer: Keep the bonus. Help seniors avoid having to pack up and move Outside, taking with them - to spend Outside - their retirement checks, their Social Security, their savings, their veterans benefits, etc.

A little history: When we were a Territory and even in the early decades of statehood, it was almost the norm for many seniors to have to retire to the Lower 48 where the cost of living was cheaper. The Pacific Northwest was probably the most popular area, because it "seemed more like Alaska."

Why did they go? They had to. It was purely an economic thing. They didn't want to leave; for many, moving Outside broke their hearts.

Then, in Alaska, a wonderful thing happened. A series of legislative enactments, supported by Republicans and Democrats, made it possible for Alaska old-timers to stay here with children, grandchildren and friends. In 16 years of proudly representing Juneau in the Alaska House of Representatives, I consider my "yes" votes for these bills among the very best I ever cast.

The centerpiece of the effort to keep senior Alaskans in Alaska was, and remains, the Longevity Bonus Program. Strange as it may seem to some, for many old timers a modest bonus check each month makes all the difference. It makes staying here possible. In dignity. No "pauper's oath" required.

True, the $2.4 billion annual economic benefit that the McDowell Group identified has already diminished through the effects of a phase-out that began in 1994. But, if we let the law run its course, the bonus can and will continue pumping significant billions into economy.

Even more important, retaining the Longevity Bonus will allow thousands of Alaska old timers to continue to live and die in the Great Land they love and serve. How, in conscience, can legislators vote to do less?

Mike Miller, an Alaskan since June 22, 1954, represented Juneau in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1971 to 1987.

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