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Guest Opinion: 7,000 Scamming Seniors

A double standard for the Golden Years?

Politicians are easy targets. We blast them when they engage in hypocrisy by saying one thing and doing another. We have every right to be peeved when it comes to New Jersey's elected officials collecting a pension while still being in office (the law never should have been passed allowing it), particularly when so many people in the private sector are worried whether their pension is going to be there at all when they really retire.

There are crooked politicians and a disproportionate number of them seem to be in New Jersey. I’m not even talking about questionable or gray areas, I’m talking about outright corruption, stealing, using your office for financial gain, taking bribes. You know what I’m talking about.

I’ve often argued that those who serve in elected office are in many ways nothing more than a microcosm of the rest of society. I’ve never believed that politicians in New Jersey or any other place are more unethical and less honest than the average citizen. Now, many argue, and I would agree, that our elected officials should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us who are private citizens.

But what really irks me is when citizens, particularly those who blog on websites blasting elected officials, act as if somehow average citizens are more honest than those we elect. They are not. It is just that nobody really knows what most people do in their private lives. Who knows when the average person in New Jersey scams the insurance system by putting in a false claim? People cheat on their taxes all the time, but the only tax returns that are made public are those of elected officials. So again, who really knows or cares about Joe Q citizen or Mary the waitress reporting all their "cash income" on April 15?

But every once in a while it becomes crystal clear that average citizens, in this case, those in their so-called Golden Years, can cheat with the best of them. This week it was revealed that in approximately 7,000 cases, senior citizens reported to the government that they were making less than the $70,000 necessary to qualify for something called a “senior freeze” program, in which the state would reimburse struggling and disabled seniors who were trying to deal with rising property taxes.

Well, the state did an audit and compared 2008 federal tax returns to a select group of senior citizens who had applied to the state for the rebate check. Right now, about 160,000 seniors are enrolled in the program. In this spot audit, they found that 7,000 of them were either cheating or somehow didn’t know that even though it was clearly stated that if they earned over $70,000 per year that they were not eligible for the $1,000 check. But they thought they should get it anyway.

The AARP immediately came to the defense of these 7,000 alleged cheaters when Douglas Johnston, a lobbyist for the AARP, told NJ.com; "I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those 7,000 had heart palpitations when they got the letters. Audits are appropriate but I find it very difficult to believe that 7,000 seniors are bilking the system.” Finally, Johnston stated that the rebates "are critical for seniors and disabled adults who are really struggling financially. This sort of thing can push them over the edge."

Okay, Mr. Johnston, let me get this straight. If a politician cheats on his taxes or somehow tries to hide an embarrassing piece of information, of course it is because he or she is less than honest. But you seem to know that the seniors, who said they were earning less than $70,000 -- who then received the $1,000 check and then were told to return it -- were all somehow confused or just didn’t understand the way the program worked? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt in a few of those cases, but I’m not buying that the vast majority of these 7,000 seniors weren’t simply trying to scam the system.

The bottom line is that when you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and making excuses for either senior citizens or elected officials doesn’t make things better. In fact, it sends a message, particularly to the younger generation, that the only problem with scamming the system is if you get caught. And, if you do get caught, deny, deny, deny.

All I’m saying is that most politicians are no better or worse than the rest of us, and those who are convinced otherwise are just deluding themselves. Those 7,000 seniors should be ashamed because they cheated and got caught. It doesn’t make them terrible people, but they are not outstanding citizens. What do you think? Write to me at sadubato@aol.

Steve Adubato, Ph.D., is a bestselling author, motivational speaker and Emmy Award-winning Thirteen/WNET (PBS) host. He is also co-anchor of NJ Capitol Report, which airs on numerous PBS stations along the East Coast. For more information, log on to caucusnj.org

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