The Next Health Care Fight: Scott Ditches Medicaid Expansion

Clearly, it’s gratifying to see that, after all of our hard work, the Supreme Court didn’t throw out the entire Affordable Care Act. But as we noted, one part of the decision held some cause for concern: the Court weakened the requirement that states expand Medicaid coverage, using federal funding, so that millions of people at or near the poverty line could get health care.

The Court ruled, narrowly, that states could opt out of providing the additional Medicaid eligibility, which would leave a substantial gap in the number of people with coverage. Since the federal government would be providing all of the funding for this expansion for the first few years and 90% of it going forward, however, there would be little reason to decline the expansion of Medicaid, outside of a combination of ideological extremism, disinterest in covering the most vulnerable people and pure spite over the passage of the ACA.

Well, we’ve learned to never underestimate that combination. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida announced Sunday he would turn down federal funding and block the Medicaid expansion.

A study by the Urban Institute suggests that in Florida alone, 1.8 million people would be eligible for the expanded Medicaid coverage—and, because of Scott’s stubbornness, nearly a million and a half of those people would be left uninsured, with exactly the same bad set of options they have today.

The rejection of the Medicaid expansion has been the biggest danger underlying Thursday’s ruling. Medicaid expansion was supposed to cover everyone with incomes below 133% of the federal poverty level. It’s really the only option available for those under the poverty level, which is just over $11,000 for a single person and just over $23,000 for a family of four. Without the expansion, people at this level of income (and that includes millions of minimum-wage earners and people who work part-time) are very nearly out of luck.

Other governors who have suggested they might not take the Medicaid expansion include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and—surprise!—the ever-frustrating Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. The biggest question mark here is Texas, a huge state with a big uninsured population and a governor given to loud displays of ideological purity.

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell is faced with the same choice; while he’s spoken publicly about repealing the ACA, his state is implementing the law, and health care experts there call denying the expansion “catastrophic” and “foolish.”

David Dayen of Firedoglake has offered some very good analysis of the stakes of this Medicaid fight, and why these governors might make a show of refusing. Other analysts have suggested that, since the Medicaid expansion is a good deal for states, they’ll end up taking it eventually—but it will take time and pressure to get us there.

As Salon’s Steve Kornacki notes, this is mostly about politics for governors like Scott.

Essentially, the court handed Republican politicians a high-profile opportunity to define themselves in opposition to President Obama’s signature accomplishment, a law for which their party’s has particular contempt. So there’s an element of posturing here…as long as Obama is president and his name is linked to it, there’s always going to be some kind of an opening for a Republican politician to make a name for himself by vowing to stop or reverse the expansion.

As a game played among boldfaced names in political reporting, this is bad enough. But it’s much worse when you consider that the playing pieces in Rick Scott’s little chess game are people trying to feed their families on $20,000 a year.

This is the next fight for health care—to make sure that our elected leaders are doing their job and actually implementing this bill. This is an opportunity to put pressure on our representatives in state capitols. Politicians like Rick Scott can’t be allowed to let their spite and their ideological obsessions prevent millions of people from the promise of health care.

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Supreme Court Upholds Affordable Care Act

The news has just come in: the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010 and will reform our health care system to insure millions more people, has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Roberts joined Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, Kagan and Ginsburg in upholding the law, which Working America members spent many months telling Congress to pass.

There are a few wrinkles in the decision, the effects of which remain to be seen. In particular, the provision which expanded Medicaid coverage to families near the poverty line has been narrowed somewhat. We will look closely at the decisions and keep you updated on the law and how it’s being implemented.

We’re relieved and gratified that the health care bill our members fought so hard to pass will be preserved and millions of Americans will receive health care coverage. Let us know what you think about the decision and what your hopes and concerns are about the future of health care.

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Netroots Nation 2012: Building a Fairer Economy

“The economic reality we’re facing is a tremendous opportunity to make a new set of choices,” said Ai-Jen Poo at this morning’s opening panel at the Netroots Nation conference. Alongside AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and others, Ai-Jen Poo spoke this morning about the need to lay out a strong progressive agenda.

Krugman has just written a new book, “End This Depression Now,” and says that we’re continuing to see an economy that isn’t working. There are some 4 million Americans who have been out of work for a year or more, and millions of young p[eople struggling to get their livers started; even as the economy has seen some growth, we remain in a slump deep enough that Krugman uses the word “Depression.” And it doesn’t have to be this way, he contended.

“None of this has to happen,” Krugman said. “We didn’t have a plague of locusts, we were not hit by a tsunami…People in charge are refusing to end things quickly. they are rejecting the lessons of history.” Solving the economic crisis, he said, is not primarily an economic problem, it’s a political problem.

The problem, he says, is that the people with the loudest voice and the most influence are misguided about what needs to be done. As unemployment holds the economy back, many political leaders insist that the real problem is government spending and deficits and we just need to “tighten our belts.” It’s a powerful and counter-productive myth–one that leads to layoffs and austerity in state and local governments and a failure of the Federal Reserve to do what it can to ease unemployment.

The key to fighting back is building political pressure for better policies. “Nothing will change unless we make it change, and none of us is big enough to do it alone,” Trumka said. “We have to build a movement.”

Heather McGhee, an economist and vice president of Demos, agreed. The challenge, she said, is that many people view the economy “as something like the weather, like some set of natural forces, and there isn’t very much that we can do to get us out of it. All of the solutions that we should be advocating require dealing with that problem.” That requires asserting a strong, focused and clear message about what’s wrong with the economy and how to fix it.

“The public knows two things” very well, Krugman said. “They know how the economy is doing, and they know if you stand for something.”

We have to be clear about what we need and build a popular movement to support it, Trumka said. Let’s not be ashamed and whisper behind our hands–let’s be strong and public about our agenda is.

Key to the weakness of our economy is how inequality creates challenges for working people, McGhee said. There was a time when income rose along with productivity, she said that has changed in ways that create incredible economic insecurity. we’re going to have to do a lot more to put America back on a sound footing.

From 1946 to 1973, Trumka added, productivity doubled and so did wages, and wages rose more for bottom 2 quartiles than for wealthier folks. That’s partly because unions represented more workers and lifted wages not just for members but for nonmembers.

“We think collective bargaining is a cornerstone of a balanced economy,” Trumka said. Jobs aren’t good jobs just by their nature. They’re good jobs because someone demanded it.

Another political challenge is that the most economically dispossessed are also the least likely to vote, McGhee said, noting that political inequality and economic inequality reinforce each other.

At the Federal Reserve, there’s a panic about things that hurt bondholder interests, Krugman said, and a sense that you have to be “tough” and “you’re doing your job right if you’re inflicting pain.” The Fed has fallen down on one of its two responsibilities: they focus far more on inflation than employment. They could be doing a lot more, Krugman said, and need to send stronger signals to the rest of the economy that they’re not going to take counterproductive measures.

Ai-Jen Poo, the founder of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, has hands-on experience building a movement to change people’s expectations and improve their lives. Domestic workers are an important part of this story: they’re among the most excluded and marginalized people in our workforce, but the problems they face are now affecting more and more workers: insecurity, low pay, poor conditions, and the contingent and temporary nature of the work.

Ai-jen pointed to the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights as a key victory: “We can build a model for the way our economy should work, in a way that recognizes everyone’s human dignity.” Ai-jen noted that home care is growing as America gets older, and we need to make sure everyone can get care and that work providing that care is a good job. It’s a great example of bottom-up organizing to make better policies.

Ai-jen described her strategy as “protect what we’ve earned and create what we need.” We need to stop attacks on the things that matter, like Social Security, Medicare, workers’ rights and voting rights, but we also need to take proactive steps and have a positive agenda. “We’ve relegated ourselves to defensive fights. If we don’t assert what is right, for ourselves and for future generations, we’ll never get there.”

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A Modest Proposal for Pete Peterson

Yesterday, political leaders of both parties and media heavyweights convened to flatter and tout the preferences of one very influential man.

Meet Pete Peterson, the man who has made it a personal crusade to roll back decades of retirement security and induce panic about deficits and debt in Washington politicians. And when we say “made it a personal crusade,” we mean he’s invested in it to the tune of close to half a billion dollars, a new Huffington Post story reports.

According to a review of tax documents from 2007 through 2011, Peterson has personally contributed at least $458 million to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to cast Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and government spending as in a state of crisis, in desperate need of dramatic cuts. Peterson’s millions have done next to nothing to change public opinion: In survey after survey, Americans reject the idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Like the Koch brothers and other billionaires, Peterson has invested big in order to shape the political debate and push his ideological agenda. In addition to his own institute, Peterson—who served as Secretary of Commerce under Nixon—endows scholars at other think tanks, supports curricula at colleges, and even funds a newspaper, the Fiscal Times, that has partnered with the Washington Post. At least in elite Washington circles, Peterson’s influence is far-reaching, as evidenced by the appearance of former President Clinton, the Treasury Secretary, the Speaker of the House and Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan at yesterday’s event. Peterson-style policy preferences are the unspoken ideology of Washington conventional wisdom, including much of the press. These ideas dominate the conversation among the “serious” pundits and think-tankers who help set national policies.

Let’s step away from the catered lunches and carpeted conference rooms for a moment, though, and talk about what the rest of the country has to say. Social Security and Medicare are a big part of what allows seniors to have dignity and peace of mind in retirement, especially as private-sector pensions have eroded. Nearly 2/5 of all the income earned by seniors comes from Social Security; for a majority of seniors, Social Security represents 50% or more of their income. For a quarter of elderly couples and half of elderly single people, Social Security makes up 90% or more of their income—literally all that stands between them and severe poverty. Most Americans pay into these systems, and they’re the only guarantee of security and health care we have after we retire. And contrary to the talking points of Peterson-promoted, paid-for panic, Social Security and Medicare aren’t facing an imminent crisis.

Peterson—a billionaire—never has to worry about dignity in retirement, about choosing between food and medicine, about having to work even when your health won’t allow it. Nor do members of Congress with their taxpayer-funded pensions, or well-paid TV hosts, lobbyists and think-tank presidents. They also feel the pressure of paying into the system much less than the majority of working people, since they only pay Social Security tax on the first $110,100 of their income.

So here’s a modest proposal for Peterson and the networks that advance his message. You can raise the retirement age to whatever you want—as long as, at age 65, every think-tanker, pundit and politician who pushes the fake crisis gets to swap places with a 65-year-old nurse, truck driver, hotel housekeeper or drill-press operator. Sound good?

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Ryan Again Tries to Defend Indefensible Budget

This morning, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House’s budget committee, spoke at Georgetown University, and once again he offered a defense of his budget and his vision for America.

That vision, as we’ve discussed before, involves the demolition of the Medicare guarantee and a big redistribution of the benefits of economic growth upward. In Ryan’s world, you’re on your own—and that means your access to health care and education, among other things, would be sharply constrained by your wealth, even more so than it is today.

Indeed, many of Georgetown’s faculty, in advance of Ryan’s speech, spoke out against Ryan’s budget for violating basic moral principles:

We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.

Remember, this is the budget passed by the GOP majority in the House and endorsed by Mitt Romney, so it bears continued scrutiny and discussion. And the Georgetown teachers and religious leaders who called out Ryan were absolutely right to do so.

Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect rightly calls Ryan’s plan “alarming.” He explains what Ryan’s proposals would actually do: they amount to some $9 trillion in tax cuts, heavily tilted towards the very wealthiest, coupled with devastating cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, Pell grants and other programs that help support working-class families and give them a chance to get out of poverty. As Bouie puts it:

Ryan… would engineer an unprecedented financial windfall for the wealthiest Americans. Everyone else would have to pay for it. This is neither compassionate nor an attempt at achieving “the ends of the welfare state through more private means and more efficient public means”—it’s a whole scale attack on the idea of social responsibility.

The Ryan/Romney/Republican is a complete departure from the post-war political consensus in a way that wasn’t true of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or even McCain/Palin. Ryan wants to return to a world of tremendous social and economic injustice, and the GOP has signed on wholeheartedly.

When Working America staff go door to door in working-class neighborhoods each night, they hear about a lot of issues: good jobs, health care, schools, corporate accountability. But underneath all of these specific issues is a broader question about what kind of country we are, and what kind of economy we have. Are we building a future for our kids where everyone has a decent life and a chance to get rewarded for hard work, or are we building a winner-take-all economy where the value we create gets captured by an ever-smaller segment of society? After all, in recent decades, working people have seen their productivity go up a lot, their wages far less so—putting pressure on their ability to pay for their home, their health care and higher education for their kids. The people we visit understand this pressure at a gut level.

For all his gauzy, pretty talk about opportunity and growth, Ryan’s policies speed up the growth of inequality and ravage the programs and policies that protect the rest of us. People like the thousands of families we talk to every week deserve better.

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Primary Night Brings Victories for Working Families in Pennsylvania

This week’s primary election in Pennsylvania held several bright spots for working families, public education advocates, and those who value accountability for our politicians.

One victory was in the West Philadelphia House District 188, where incumbent Rep. James Roebuck faced a primary challenge from Fatimah Muhammad. Rep. Roebuck is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, and has been a major opponent of school vouchers and other forms of education privatization. This made him a target of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the big-money pro-voucher group headed by major right wing zillionaire Betsy DeVos, as well as Michelle Rhee’s anti-teacher PAC Students First.

“I see a move by essentially a handful of very wealthy people who want to privatize public education for a wide variety of reasons,” Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the anti-voucher Keystone State Education Coalition, told the Philadelphia City Paper. “Not the least of which has to do with crushing labor unions, but they also want tax dollars going to private and religious schools.”

These out of state corporate-backed groups spent almost a $1 million on down-ballot races in Pennsylvania, littering Roebuck’s district with glossy mailers accusing him of hurting students – when in fact he has been protecting students and families from privatization, as well as fighting Gov. Corbett’s deep budget cuts:

Roebuck is even blamed for alleged widespread cheating on standardized tests at Philadelphia schools—cheating encouraged the by the high-stakes tests, which now play a decisive role in teacher evaluation and even a school’s survival, touted by these very same school reform advocates.

Like pro-voucher efforts nationwide, the Pennsylvania campaign conceals the corporate money behind local front groups. The word “voucher” does not appear in any of the attack ads.

Luckily, Working America organizers worked with brothers and sisters from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) to let West Philadelphians know about the money behind Muhammad and the truth of Rep. Roebuck’s record, on the phone and door-to-door. And despite the money spent against him, Roebuck pulled out a win with an 887 vote margin.

In another part of Philadelphia, Democrat Ed Neilson squared off with Republican Dave Kralle for an open seat in House District 169. With close votes on everything from education funding to voter suppression, an open House seat isn’t small potatoes, and the choice in the 169th was clear. Not only had Neilson advocated for workers as Deputy Secretary of Labor under Gov. Rendell, he also had been a union electrician, a lifelong member of IBEW Local 98. That’s right: Philly had the chance to send someone to the legislature who actually understood the perspective of the average working family.

It was tight, but in a District formerly represented by a Republican, the electrician engineered a 592 vote victory in this special election. Neilson and Kralle will face off again in November.

Lastly, in Western Pennsylvania, redistricting had forced two Democratic Congressmen to compete for the 12th Congressional District. Still, there was a clear contrast. Rep. Jason Altmire voted against the Affordable Care Act, which we know is an enormous boon to young people, seniors, and families seeking health care coverage. Altmire voted ‘no’ on health care even after telling his constituents it was a priority for him. Meanwhile, he voted for the Republican “Balanced Budget Amendment,” a right-wing measure that would have opened the door to cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

Working America worked with the United Steelworkers as part of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Program to get out the vote for Rep. Mark Critz, an advocate for job creation, workers’ rights, and protecting the social safety net. Because the way the map had been drawn, the area Critz had represented was only 27 percent of the new district, giving him a disadvantage. Still, when the two records were made clear, working Pennsylvanians chose Critz – the margin of victory was just over 1,000 votes, or one percent.

Working America will continue to work with our allies to ensure that the politicians we send to state houses and the U.S. Capitol have working families’ best interests in mind. Not only do these three narrow victories show that every single vote counts in every single race – it also gives us hope for the high-stakes elections later this year.

Photo of Pennsylvania Rep. James Roebuck from the PA House of Representatives Website

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Congress Risking Student Loan Interest-Rate Hike

As the cost of higher education rises faster than wages, Americans are staring down $1 trillion in student loan debt—a daunting number that stunts personal economic prospects. But what’s worse is that, for the next set of students looking at college, the interest they’ll have to pay on student debt could double.

A 2007 bill which lowered the interest rate on student loans is set to expire on July 1, which would double the interest on federal student loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The House and Senate need to act quickly—but Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline, who heads the key committee in the House, claims it’s too expensive to extend the lower rates. (Kline’s concerns about cost must have been rough for him when he voted for the Paul Ryan budget that featured massive tax cuts for millionaires.)

If Congress waits too long, they’ll turn student loan interest into just another example of governance-by-unnecessary-emergency, the same silly process we’ve seen with the payroll tax cut, the debt ceiling, the highway bill and other issues. And refusing to extend lower rates would just shift more costs to young people who will be entering college this fall and beyond.

This deadline isn’t coming up out of the blue. Back in February, Alternet’s Sarah Jaffe noted that the interest-rate hike would add thousands of dollars to the cost of college.

Nobody should have to go to college to get a fair wage and a decent life—but nobody who wants to pursue higher education should be held back by cost. We talk to thousands of people across the country every week, and education is a constant concern—the hope that they or their kids can afford education, and that the cost won’t cripple their long-term prospects. An unnecessary, drastic hike in interest rates for student loans would punish people for pursuing their own advancement.

We’ll keep an eye on this important issue in the coming months. Will future college students win the fight—or will Rep. Kline?

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Senator Harkin’s Rebuild America Plan

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin announced a new economic plan he’s calling the “Rebuild America Plan.” From The Nation:

The legislation is divided into three basic categories: the first is proactive federal spending an action meant to boost the flagging economy. It includes:

$300 billion for roads, bridges, energy efficiency systems and other infrastructure

$20 billion in school modernization funding

Boosting funding for agencies that regulate trade, to better enforce fair trade policies

Funding to states to hire teachers, public safety workers and other public employees.

To help workers and families:

Increased child care subsidies for working parents

Ensuring that workers, particularly white-collar workers categorized as independent contractors, earn time-and-a-half overtime pay

Raising the minimum wage

Strengthening the National Labor Relations Act, making it easier for workers to join unions and increasing penalties on employers for blocking unionization.

To pay for the increased spending:

Raising the capital gains rate and closing the carried interest loophole

A Wall Street speculators tax, of three basis points on common financial securities trades

Ending tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs.

Senator Harkin is aware that such a proposal wouldn’t fly in the current Congress. He does think that we need to stop thinking in Paul Ryan terms:

“I firmly believe that anyone running for election this year to the House or the Senate—if they take up this bill, if they take up the direction of this bill… I believe that will be a winning formula,” he said. “I think the American people are hungry, looking for some way out of this mess that we’re in and I think they’re saturated [with] these sort of quick-fix type things—that we can’t be bold, we can’t grow, we’ve got to, as the Ryan budget says, just keep shrinking and shrinking and shrinking.”

There are some options here that would create jobs by investing in fixing our broken infrastructure. There are options that would help struggling families get back on track.

We certainly need to discuss choices other than the current menu of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class while continuing to shovel tax breaks at the wealthy.

Photo of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis by US Department of Labor on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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This Week on Main Street – March 30, 2012

Source: Uploaded by user via IAFF on Pinterest

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day in the rest of the world, which is kind of like every day in Washington, DC. Except there’s less laughing.

This week the U.S. House, demonstrating the infinite wisdom we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of last year, passed a budget that essentially phases out Medicare while doubling-down on tax cuts for the 1%. The budget is the brainchild of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who looks like an innocent 1950’s soda shop owner but produced a bill that’s so anti-worker and so regressive, we couldn’t think of a cleverer nickname for it than “The Terrible Deal.”

Unfortunately, as they often do, the stodgy establishment here in D.C. greeted Paul Ryan’s wet-kiss-to-the-insanely rich by furrowing their brows and remarking how “serious” and “brave” it was. As Seth wrote, there’s nothing particularly brave about transferring massive health care costs onto seniors and the working poor while advocating $3 trillion in tax cuts for corporations and millionaires – while increasing the deficit for future generations to deal with.

There was an actual serious and brave budget put forward by the Congressional Progressive Caucus called the “Budget For All.” This budget would end the Bush handouts for the wealthiest, decrease the deficit by $6.8 trillion, and make investments in infrastructure that would put Americans back to work immediately. This budget deserves to be on the table and part of the discussion as much as – if not more than – Paul Ryan’s Terrible Deal. But hey, that would make sense, and this Congress doesn’t really like to do things that make sense, like adequately fund roads.

Out in the states, Wisconsin had a big Friday. In the morning, the state election board officially certified 900,939 valid signatures, triggering the recall election of Governor Scott Walker. Then a few hours later, a federal court struck down two key provisions of the infamous Act 10, the anti-union “budget repair” law that started the whole shebang last winter. In a bit of irony more delicious than a Wisconsin brat, Walker’s attempt to pit police and firefighters against other public workers could have been the move that rendered the law unconstitutional. Not a terribly good way to start the weekend for Mr. Walker.

Meanwhile, Mike gave us an update on the West Virginia mine disaster, Doug asked some more #simplequestions about ALEC’s influence on our government, Dan fought back against Verizon greed, Susan reminded us why we’re going to miss NH Gov. John Lynch, and Seth explained why America’s older women should be sending Paul Ryan nasty greeting cards right about now.

And we’re out! Have a safe and happy weekend, Working America. Wisconsinites – don’t party too hard.

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Study: Older Women Face Economic Insecurity

According to a new study, a shocking 60% of women over 65 can’t afford basic living expenses.

These disparities are often the result of unequal pay and opportunities for women throughout their lives. Women are more likely than men to have worked lower-wage jobs and to have taken time off to care for other family members. While Social Security makes up 59% of older men’s income, it makes up 77% of older women’s income. Another factor in this divide is that older women are more likely to live alone than older men, and thus live in households with lower income and no one else to share costs.

This study, by the organization Wider Opportunities for Women, is part of their Elder Economic Security Initiative, and compared cost of living state-by-state to older people’s income.

This new report echoes findings from a study done last year by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In that study, 47% of women reported having little or no confidence that their assets would last them through their years of retirement, and they also reported at much higher rates than men that they have had difficulty paying for food, housing and health care. Women also reported lower levels of investment in retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s.

These studies highlight how important Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are. They keep millions of people out of poverty, especially as fewer and fewer jobs offer defined-benefit pensions, and they protect older Americans from the impact of catastrophic medical bills. These figures also show how important it is to eliminate disparities in pay for men and women, so that women aren’t disadvantaged later in life, and how important it is to protect the ability of workers to bargain for fair pay and retirement benefits.

Of course, yesterday the Republican majority in the U.S. House passed a budget that would be a devastating blow to Medicare and Medicaid, raising out-of-pocket costs and eroding the guarantee of health coverage for retirees. These politicians—who have perfectly secure health care and pensions themselves—thought that lower taxes on the very rich were a higher priority than protecting seniors.

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