The Empty 401(k)

If White House press secretary Tony Snow won’t save for retirement, why should you?

Tony Snow

From the time he joined the Bush administration in May 2006 until he delivered his final briefing last week, White House press secretary Tony Snow had the unenviable job of defending an increasingly unpopular administration to a press corps intent on making up for its earlier fawning treatment. Snow has also been a chief spokesman for the Bush administration’s domestic agenda, forced to argue continually that the typical American is doing just fine, and bravely pushing the unpopular elements of Bush’s vaunted “ownership society”: privatizing Social Security, eliminating defined-benefit pensions in favor of 401(k)s; and replacing insurance with health savings accounts, high-deductible policies, and other consumer-driven health-care initiatives.

And yet Snow’s own life in many ways symbolizes the downside of the ownership society—and suggests how much a government role in health and retirement benefits is necessary.

When Snow came to the White House after several years at the Fox News Channel, it was clear that he had relied entirely on others to save for his retirement. Snow conceded: “As a matter of fact, I was even too dopey to get in on a 401(k). So there is actually no Fox pension. The only media pension I have is through AFTRA [a union].” Even though his employer provided a 401(k) and would have matched contributions, and even though he was earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, Snow had not shown either the interest or financial capability to manage his own retirement benefits.

As part of his press secretary job, Snow had to spin economic news to make it seem as if the typical American was doing well in an economy in which gains have been distributed unevenly. A report issued by the Census Bureau last month showed that median household income, at $48,201, hasn’t budged since 1999. Snow admitted to feeling pinched on his salary of $168,000, which is about 3.5 times the median U.S. income. “We took out a loan when I came to the White House, and that loan is now gone,” he said. “So I’m going to have to pay the bills.”

Snow survived colon cancer in 2005, but earlier this spring it returned to his liver. Snow is fighting it valiantly. “I finished chemo two weeks ago today,” he said last week. “We did CAT scans and MRIs in the last week and it indicates that the chemo did exactly what we hoped it would do, which is hold serve. The tumors that we’ve been tracking have not grown. … We’ll be doing what’s called a maintenance dose of chemotherapy just to keep whacking this thing.” He also noted that he’d be having scans every three months, “just to stay on top of everything.”

That’s great news for Snow and his family, and we wish him much success in his battle. But such treatment is enormously expensive and only available to people who have good insurance—like the kind taxpayers fund for public employees such as Snow. If Snow had owned his own benefits, or approached health care as a consumer, as the administration wants people to do, he’d certainly be singing a different tune. Had Snow stashed a few thousand dollars in a health savings account, which is one of the administration’s chief proposals to reduce the rising number of the uninsured, he likely wouldn’t have enough cash to afford chemotherapy. According to the Census Bureau, there were 47 million Americans without insurance in 2006, up from 41.2 million in 2001, when Bush entered office. Were any of them to be afflicted with cancer as Snow has been, they’d be largely out of luck—unable to pay the bills for all those scans and chemo doses, and unable to find an insurer willing to cover such a pre-existing condition.

When it comes to health care and retirement, policy has a great deal to do with quality of life. And here the contradictions between Snow’s personal situation and the position of his administration are glaring. Despite expressions of concern, President Bush’s response to the health insurance crisis is tied to ideological responses that have little bearing on the reality of health-care costs or delivery. Earlier this summer, he spoke of tweaking the tax code to make insurance more affordable, while opposing the expansion of Medicaid to cover children.

Snow conceded that he has been very lucky to have the government fund his health care. “I’ve been lucky I work at the White House, I’ve had the use of diagnostic care. I’d like to find ways to help those who, for whatever reason, …  don’t get diagnostic treatment, don’t take care of themselves, may not have the resources that I’ve had at my disposal,” he said. But that hasn’t made him rethink his opposition to using federal resources to expand coverage for fellow cancer sufferers. “That does not mean that I’m going to be necessarily banging the tin cup for federal funding. It may be that I’ll go out, try and raise some money myself to try to help people directly.”

Snow noted that oncologists and patients have made heroic strides in turning “cancer into a chronic disease rather than a fatal disease.” But nothing the administration has done in its seven years in office, for which he has been an able spinner, and nothing any of the Republicans who aim to replace Bush have proposed, would help someone who finds himself in Snow’s unfortunate position.