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How Hillary Clinton Wants to Help Family Caregivers

Now that it's an election topic, will other candidates speak up?


Next Avenue Blogger
Next Avenue Blogger

Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton just made the topic of family caregiving (and the financial toll it can take on caregivers) part of the 2016 presidential election conversation, and not a moment too soon.

Roughly 34 million Americans provide unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older, according to the 2015 Caregiving In the U.S. report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute. About one in five family caregivers experience financial strain as a result and 22 percent of those providing care for a year or longer do. What’s more, 60 percent of employed caregivers have had to either cut back on their work hours, take a leave of absence or make some other type of accommodation, the study said.

The financial cost is steep. Caring.com estimates that Alzheimer’s caregivers spend more than $50,000 a year on expenses related to their duties. And the overall annual economic value of unpaid informal caregiving in America: $470 billion, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, which is more than the nation’s $449 billion in Medicaid spending.

A $1,200 Tax Credit for Some Caregivers

I’m not in the tank for Hillary Clinton, or for any of the candidates for that matter. But I do give her credit for raising this issue by just proposing a tax credit of up to $1,200 to help offset caregiving costs for “ailing parents and grandparents.”

This announcement made me want to see what the other Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have said and proposed on the topic of family caregiving. I’ll tell you what I found (or, mostly didn’t find) momentarily, but first let me explain Clinton’s idea.

Clinton, who cared for her own aging mother, favors a tax credit to help offset up to $6,000 in caregiving costs for elderly family members.

Clinton, who cared for her own aging mother at home, favors a tax credit to help family members offset up to $6,000 in caregiving costs for their elderly family members.

Similar to the way the child care tax credit works, the family caregiver credit would work on a sliding scale of income and apply to 20 percent of the expenses, up to $1,200 max. The value of the credit would drop for upper-income families and not be available to the wealthiest.

You couldn’t claim Clinton’s tax credit for unpaid caregiving for your spouse, however. That type of assistance, I suspect, will only grow in coming years, as more husbands and wives care for their mates with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Clinton’s family caregiver credit is modeled after a bill sponsored by two Democratic Senators — Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — known as the Americans Giving Care to Elders (AGE) Act.

Boosting Caregivers’ Social Security Benefits

Another family caregiving proposal from Clinton hasn’t received as much attention, but is equally intriguing: She wants people to be able to earn credits toward their monthly Social Security retirement benefits during the time they drop out of the workforce to care for elderly relatives.

That’s because your Social Security benefit is calculated based on your top 35 years of earnings. When you’re not working for pay, you’re docked by Social Security.

This idea, introduced in Congress by Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), is backed by the nonpartisan Family Caregiver Platform Project (aka Caregiver Corps), which aims to get caregiving issues in state party political platforms across the country. One of its partners is Caring Across Generations, the national campaign whose co-director is Ai-Jen Poo, one of Next Avenue’s 50 Influencers in Aging for 2015.

Both the caregiving credit and the Social Security credits would require Congressional approval.

Clinton also wants to greatly expand the federal Lifespan Respite Care program — state-level grants to improve respite care access for family caregivers of children or adults of any age. She favors spending $10 million a year, double President Obama’s 2016 budget request and five times what the federal government allocated in 2015.

The total cost of all of Clinton’s family caregiver proposals: $10 billion over 10 years. (Clinton has previously proposed a tax credit of up to $2,500 — $5,000 for families — for steep out-of-pocket health care expenses that exceed 5 percent of their income, to be paid for by tax increases on the wealthy and drug company rebates.)

Republican National Committee spokesman Fred Brown told AP: “Hillary Clinton’s solution to every pressing policy issue is to expand government and raise taxes, and this plan is no different as it will cost hardworking Americans billions.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t comment on any of Clinton’s caregiving proposals in particular, but his spokesman told The Wall Street Journal: “It’s too late for tentative half-steps that sound Republican-lite.”

What the Other Democratic Candidates Say

That brings me to where the rest of the presidential field stands on family caregiving (aside from all the candidates presumably being in favor of it).

On the Democratic side, Sanders has co-sponsored the FAMILY Act of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which would guarantee every employee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, funded through new federal taxes. He also has introduced legislation to expand caregiver benefits, training and respite for people caring for U.S. veterans.

And Gov. Martin O’Malley supports Social Security caregiver credits (“to support, rather than penalize caregiving,” he says) much like Clinton does. He wants up to five years of earned Social Security credits for people providing full-time care for children, elderly parents or other dependents.

What the Republican Candidates Say

For the Republican candidates’ family caregiving views and proposals, I searched diligently online and visited all their sites.

Jeb Bush, whose 94-year-old mother-in-law has dementia, has said that “we have significantly underfunded” Alzheimer’s and told Alzheimer’s advocate Maria Shriver that “we need to find more community based solutions for care.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2014 signed a law known as The CARE Act, to support his state’s family caregivers. It doesn’t help caregivers financially, but allows them to be designated when patients are admitted to hospitals; notified when patients are to be moved or discharged; and given adequate instruction for a patient’s care after a hospital discharge.

I wasn’t able to find anything about family caregivers among the other Republican candidates, though. And since most of those contenders are calling for the elimination of tax deductions and credits (which they often call “loopholes”) and oppose expanding Social Security, it’s a good bet that none favor a new tax caregiver tax credit or a caregiver earnings credit.

But we don’t know that for sure.

How to Motivate the Candidates

So I’m hoping Clinton’s proposals might encourage all the other candidates to provide details about their views on the financial strain of family caregiving and what might be done to address it.

In the meantime, check out AARP’s 2016 Election Candidate Watch online, which keeps tabs on each candidate’s plans for Social Security. And visit the Caregiver Corps site to learn about grassroots efforts for motivating policymakers to improve support for family caregivers and frail elderly Americans.

Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour recently wrote a fascinating article noting that some advocates are trying to push caregiving onto the 2016 presidential agenda.

I hope they’re successful.

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