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The Democratic Debate’s Missed Opportunity to Discuss Aging

Social Security came up, but so much else was left unsaid


After watching last night’s Democratic presidential debate (along with 15.3 million Americans) and the two earlier Republican debates, I’ve been surprised and disappointed at how the aging of the U.S. population has barely registered among the contenders except when it comes to Social Security and Medicare.

Take last night.

By my watch, it took one hour and 40 minutes before Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders pivoted to Social Security — for all of three minutes. Both were clear: Shore up and improve the bedrock retirement program.

Clinton, Sanders and Social Security

Clinton talked about wanting to enhance “the benefits for the poorest recipients of Social Security,” especially low-income women. “I will focus on helping those people who need it the most,” she added. Clinton also said she would “look for ways to try to make sure it’s [Social Security] solvent into the future,” though she didn’t specify how. Her website says “On Social Security, Hillary Clinton has stood firmly against Republican efforts to privatize the program and weaken it for our seniors.”

Sanders favored boosting Social Security benefits for everyone and offered his recommendation on how to do it. “My view is that when you have millions of seniors in this country trying to get by — and I don’t know how they do on $11,000, $12,000, $13,000 a year — you don’t cut Social Security, you expand it,” Sanders said. “And the way you expand it is by lifting the cap on taxable incomes so that you do away with the absurdity of a millionaire paying the same amount into the system as somebody making $118,000. You do that, Social Security is solvent until 2061 and you can expand benefits.”

Why has there been so little discussion about tapping into the strength and vitality of the nearly 57 million boomers age 60 and over?

The Republicans and Social Security

In sharp contrast, when Republicans have touched on Social Security, their view — generally speaking — has been that the program is too expensive to remain solvent and needs to be scaled back. Their main proposals are to: raise the retirement age or early retirement age (Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Governors Jeb Bush and Chris Christie ); means test the program to reduce or eliminate benefits for the wealthy (Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio) and to reduce and privatize benefits (Cruz, Bush and Paul). Mike Huckabee is a notable exception in calling for leaving Social Security alone.

In essence, Social Security illuminates an enormous divide between the political parties. “It’s more government versus less government,” says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. “This is as stark a difference between liberal and conservatives that we’ve seen in some time.”

What Hasn’t Been Said

But why has there been so little discussion at the debates about tapping into the strength and vitality of the nearly 57 million boomers age 60 and over to generate stronger U.S. economic growth and community dynamism? When it comes to the aging of America, there is so much more to talk about than just Social Security and Medicare.

“The key issue is work, and working longer,” says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “With an aging society you have more people that are dependent. Anything you can do to mitigate that by keeping people in the workforce longer is helpful for the economy and the federal budget and the individual.”

Munnell is spot on.

In the coming debates, I’d like to see the candidates taking advantage of their media pulpit to educate voters about the challenges and opportunities of the graying of America.

They could discuss the rise of an exciting, grassroots vision of the second half of life that is emerging around the country. Most boomers say — for both financial and emotional reasons — they don’t want to spend a quarter-century or more living a life of leisure. The search for meaning and money during the unretirement years includes finding part-time or temp work, gig-economy jobs, shifting careers and even starting businesses.

The candidates should say how they’d encourage Americans in their 60s in good health to keep working. “The story about people working longer is going to happen. Maybe not as much as it should or as fast, but it’s already happening,” says Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. “The question is, do we do it well or poorly?”

I’d also like to see the candidates expand on their vision to help the nation’s elderly who are frail, disabled or in deteriorating health. Particular attention should be paid to the 40 million unpaid caregivers still trying to earn an income and save for their retirement while assisting their elderly relatives and friends.

3 Proposals for the Next President

And here are three things I’d like the new occupant in the White House to do, along with bipartisan legislators, concerning the subjects of aging and unretirement:

Broaden the retirement savings safety net. We all know that many Americans haven’t saved enough for retirement. The most vulnerable are the 42 percent of private-sector workers without access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan. Isn’t setting up a system that makes it easy for everyone to save something that liberals and conservatives can rally around?

One popular idea is to open up the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan — perhaps the best 401(k)-type plan in the country — to small businesses.

More retirement savings translates into higher living standards in old age, which also means the elderly will draw less on government resources.

Address long-term care. Experts across the political spectrum agree that the nation’s current long-term care financing system falls far short of what is needed. Families are picking up much of the burden, at a steep cost. Here, again, liberals and conservatives should be able to come to a consensus to fix the problem.

Perhaps Medicare should expand coverage for long-term care or the government could provide incentives to make long-term care insurance more affordable.

Come up with ways to encourage longer work lives. Here’s one possibility: Today, an employer’s health insurance policy is the primary payer on any claims for individuals who are eligible for Medicare but still working. That raises the cost of hiring an older employee. Why not make Medicare the primary payer and the employer’s plan second in line on any claims? Suddenly, that older worker becomes cheaper to the employer.

Seniors show up at voting booths. My guess — a pretty safe bet — is they’ll play a much larger role in the election debates once the Republican and Democratic candidates are chosen. So here’s my plea to those two: Embrace the economic promise of a generation of boomers who want to stay deeply engaged in society, earn incomes and make a difference.

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