Each time a politician screws up the courage to talk about Social Security or Medicare reform, the stories rush forth. Grandma has to eat cat food. Grandpa has to choose between feeding his seeing eye-dog and paying the heating bill. The message: If you touch seniors’ benefits, you are a Scrooge. The rhetoric mirrors the tales of woe. Medicare reform will kill (literally, according to our shameless secretary of Health and Human Services) old folks. Seniors on fixed incomes will suffer if we means-test entitlements. (The rest of us have unlimited, ever-increasing salaries?)

All of it is meant to equate “old” with “poor” or “dependent” or “incompetent.” Imagine if the same rhetoric was deployed on behalf of unemployed 20-somethings. They, too, are on fixed incomes (often fixed at zero). They, too, have to make choices (pay the credit card bill or fix the car).

As a result, the conversation on entitlements becomes a guilt trip. The reformers are cruel, not just mistaken. The status quo defenders are noble (no matter how unsustainable is the status quo).

Robert Samuelson’s column today is therefore essential reading. To be blunt, seniors are statistically better off than the rest of us, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask them to carry more of their own weight. He explains:

To correct the stereotype, consult a government publication called “Older Americans 2010, Key Indicators of Well-Being.” It reminds us that Americans live longer and have gotten healthier. In 1930, life expectancy was 59.2 years at birth and 12.2 years at 65; in 2006, those figures were 77.7 and 18.5. Since 1981, death rates for heart disease and stroke have fallen by half for those 65 and over. In this population, about three-quarters rate their own health as “good” or “excellent.”

The statistics go on and on: “From 1959 to 2007, the proportion of the 65-plus population with incomes under the government’s poverty line ($12,968 for a couple in 2009) dropped from 35.2 percent to 9.7 percent, which was half the poverty rate for children under 18 (18 percent).” The number of elderly at “four times the poverty line, or almost $52,000 for a couple in 2009 — rose from 18.4 percent in 1980 to 30.6 percent in 2007.” Far from being among the neediest, “half the nation’s wealth is owned by people 55 and older (a third of the adult population).”

With this in mind, Democrats, ever eager for a good bout of class warfare, should be calling means-testing a moral imperative. Or as former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put it, we need to do it “for the children.”

The conversation about benefits needs to be about how we can sustain entitlements for those in need and what, as a society, we can expect well-off seniors to do to help this country maintain a prosperous society. But first we have to stop infantilizing seniors and using guilt in lieu of reasoned analysis.