Joan Vennochi

Blame it on the ’60s, man

The era is being blamed for resisting change

(Istockphoto/H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / May 29, 2011

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THE POOR old ’60s. The era that launched a generation determined to change the world is now being blamed for resisting change — especially the kind that saves taxpayer money.

That’s the lens through which Michael J. Astrue, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration, views some critics. During a recent visit to The Globe to discuss flaws with the $10 billion children’s disability program, he addressed advocates who oppose what he considers necessary changes to an admirable, but flawed, program.

He described them, generally, as people “older’’ than he and went on to label such reform-resisters as “old-line left-wingers’’ with “a ’60s mentality.’’ Their opposition to change, he said, is “ideological and philosophical:’’ They believe in shifting economic and income distribution, he explained. As a result, some of those he sees as aging flower children look at people who might be abusing the system, and conclude, “These people are poor . . . it doesn’t really matter how they get the money,’’ he said.

Get me my love beads and Joni Mitchell albums.

Astrue, who was born in 1956, is not exactly a member of the Facebook generation. He’s old enough to have lived through the decade that began with John F. Kennedy’s election as president, ended with Richard M. Nixon in the White House, and included the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, and Woodstock. His perspective likely relates less to age, and more to political pedigree. Astrue worked for the Reagan and Bush administrations in the area of health and human services; President George W. Bush nominated him to serve as commissioner of Social Security, and his six-year appointment is due to expire in January 2013.

When Astrue talks about the potential for low-income parents to coach children so they qualify for disability benefits, he sounds a bit like Ronald Reagan complaining about “welfare queens’’ — or, more currently, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia expressing concern that disaster relief money for tornado victims will add to the federal deficit.

Still, to his credit, Astrue said he does not want to rely on anecdotal evidence to buttress his concerns about the possibility of system abuse. He wants the Institute of Medicine, the nonprofit health research wing of the National Academy of Sciences, to conduct a $10 million study to scope out problems linked to over-medicated children. The Globe raised serious issues last December in a thoughtful series which reported on troubling incentives, including children being placed on psychotropic drugs to try to boost eligibility.

If that’s happening, it is wrong. But isn’t the bigger wrong a country that cuts off services to disadvantaged children, leaving it to families to manipulate the system for whatever resources are left? A blank check is not the answer, but “better parenting’’ won’t solve endemic behavioral issues either, as suggested by US Representative Richard E. Neal of Springfield, who accompanied Astrue to the Globe.

We live in confusing times. Banks are too big to fail and, so, qualify for taxpayer bailouts. Homeowners who can’t pay their monthly mortgage because one of two earners is out of a job are out of luck. The rich get tax cuts. The poor are leeches on society, undeserving of any relief. The extension of health care benefits for all citizens is framed as an evil government plot. Holding onto Medicare may be the last frontier for graying hippies.

Meanwhile, Astrue’s beating up on the ’60s is an interesting approach to critics, although not an original one. Conservatives have long disparaged the Woodstock generation for its commitment to drugs, sex, and rock and roll, not to mention liberal politics.

Indeed, that criticism happened during the ’60s and it’s still happening, a half century later. Nixon ran against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and long-haired anti-war protesters. This month, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York released a study that linked child abuse by priests to “popular’’ culture, including the feminist movement, a growing acceptance of homosexuality, drugs, premarital sex, and divorce. The Catholic Church is also quite happy to blame its problems on a ’60s mentality.

All I can say is, peace, commissioner.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at