‘We need to get the deficit down at all costs’ is one such narrative that has largely defined the last seven years in politics. It is now very hard for any mainstream politician to rubbish the story or start telling a new one, with even the anti-austerity Shadow Chancellor keen to persuade people that he is ‘not a deficit denier’.
At Wednesday’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will attempt to add the next chapter to that story.
One particular story Independent Age is increasingly worried about – which gets harder to challenge each time it is told – is the one that paints pensioners as the greedy villains at the Spending Review feast.
We suspect that after Osborne completes his statement, it won’t take long for some groups to start declaring pensioners the “winners” and working age households the “losers” of this particular budget settlement.
We are worried about this on two accounts. Firstly, that a narrative is starting to set that older people are somehow universally well off, which is simply not true.
And secondly, that the debate on pensioner benefits obscures what is really going on in many older people’s lives’ today, not least the pressure the UK’s oldest pensioners now face as crucial social care services are cut to the bone.
Instead, as a charity supporting the most vulnerable older people, we think the story should be that, in a little over a decade, this country has done something remarkable by halving the number of pensioners living in poverty.
There are 1.6 million pensioners living in poverty in the UK today (14% of the older population). While most people would agree this is still about 1.6 million too many, this is a massive reduction from 2.9 million pensioners (29%) living in poverty in 1999.
We’ve still got a long way to go. Last year actually saw a 1% rise in pensioner poverty and figures have been more or less flat since 2010. But this historic progress – which has taken place under both Labour and Conservative-led governments – should be applauded.
But instead we’re seeing worrying signs that a different narrative is taking hold. Take, for example, recent debate around the ‘triple-lock’, which protects the value of state pensions against erosion. This benefits the poorest pensioners the most: those who rely on the £116-a-week state pension and have no private pension or savings.
But we are increasingly hearing voices calling on the Chancellor to scrap the triple lock, ironically often in the name of reducing poverty, albeit in another demographic group.
And amid austerity, universal pensioner benefits – the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes, prescriptions and TV licenses - have received growing attention and calls from some quarters for them to be scrapped completely.
We’re not dogmatic about universal pensioner benefits. Indeed, our recent review of the evidence - ‘For Richer, For Poorer?’ – accepts that there might be a case for withdrawing them from the very wealthiest pensioners, as part of a wider settlement on the way we pay for our ageing society.
But a distorting narrative which pitches rich pensioners against hard working families blinds us to the fact that these benefits are a life line for pensioners on low incomes.
Let’s not pretend pensioner poverty is a thing of the past. There are 900,000 pensioners living in severe poverty. That’s hundreds of thousands of older people still struggle to afford basic essentials like fresh food, warm clothes, and heating during the winter.
And portraying pensioners as ‘lucky’ also doesn’t add up when we also consider that 2014-15 was the fifth consecutive year of real term reductions to adult social care spending. Local authority social care budgets are £4.6 billion lower than in 2010, despite rising demand for services like home help and residential care.
Of course resources are limited, but tackling poverty isn’t a zero-sum game. We can and should be ambitious about tackling poverty among all groups in society. Those of us that are interested in equality mustn’t fall into the trap of fighting between ourselves over who deserves support, or downplaying the real progress that has been made.
Whatever story Chancellor Osborne chooses to tell, talking in terms of “winners” and “losers” in terms of age isn’t just unfair, it also doesn’t make much sense. This has led to the situation where shrinking social care budgets, growing volumes of unmet need and care providers on the brink of collapse have received limited public attention. It has crowded out more important debates on the contract between older people and the state, and how we support our ageing population.