The 2016 Democratic Platform and Older Voters
What's in it, what's not and what should be
(This article was written with assistance from Richard Browdie, president and CEO of The Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.)
Last week, I wrote about what older voters would want to hear at the Republican convention. Now, it’s about to be the Democrats’ turn. Before I discuss what to look for from the Democratic platform (the final version is going to delegates for a vote now), a word about what happened at the Republican convention regarding issues affecting older voters: Gaps between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the Republican Party became even more apparent.
A Look Back at the Republican Platform
Older voters should study carefully the contradiction between Trump’s stated support for maintaining Medicare and the Republican platform. The platform called for a new Medicare transitioning to an optional “premium support model.” Similarly, although Trump told AARP that “our goal is to keep the promises made to Americans through our Social Security program,” the Republican platform was more restrictive. It said that “current retirees and those close to retirement can be assured of their benefits.”
The Democratic convention begins with less drama, but perhaps higher expectations relating to issues impacting older adults.
What's Missing From the Democratic Platform
The Democratic platform is oddly quiet on the future of Medicare, missing an opportunity to contrast with the Republicans in two areas. Those are: opposing premium supports and building on the strong reforms in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that have added a decade to the solvency of Medicare. Democrats also, at this writing, are missing an opportunity to mention the various cost-effective Medicare programs benefiting older adults resulting as from the ACA’s reforms. Two examples: care transitions programs and support for innovations in better coordinating care.
The Social Security provisions of the Democratic platform should focus more on what improvements Democrats will fight for, versus what things they will simply oppose. Saying Democrats will “expand Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity and respect” is fine. But a plan of action is needed.
The platform calls for raising the $118,500 cap on wages subject to Social Security tax to $250,000. And it says that the Democratic Party is "committed to exploring alternatives" to the current way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated because the present methodology "may not always reflect the spending patterns of seniors, particularly the disproportionate amount they spend on health care expenses." Those are just a few elements of what needs to be part of a comprehensive plan for economic security in later life.
Where the Platform Is Tepid
The Democratic platform is also tepid, if not silent altogether, on some big-ticket issues for older adults. A few examples: improved senior housing and transportation; a greater linkage between nutrition and improved health for older adults and efforts to diminish the heavy consequences of isolation among low-income elders.
The Republican platform didn’t do much better, merely calling for “safe and affordable care.... mak[ing] home care a priority in public policy… [and] programs to protect against elder abuse.”
Help for Caregiving and Home Care
However, the Democratic platform does have some language about caregiving and home care.
Echoing Hillary Clinton’s view, it proposes providing “at least 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or address a personal or family member’s serious health issue… take steps to expand and strengthen the home care workforce… and support the millions of people paying for, coordinating, or providing care for aging relatives or those with disabilities.”
But the Democrats provide few specifics.
Clinton has clearer positions than her party’s platform in a couple of areas along these lines, though. For instance, she has a proposed tax credit of up to $1,200 for family caregivers. She has also called for Social Security retirement credits for those who must drop out of the workforce to care for relatives. The platform gives these ideas short shrift, saying only that “We will provide tax relief to help the millions of families caring for aging relatives or family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities.”
The platform should be commended, however, for fighting against age discrimination and against discriminatory voter identification laws — which disproportionately burden specific groups of voters, including the older voter.
It's also good to see the strong defense of the Older Americans Act, which, the platform rightly notes, "funds critical programs to help seniors remain independent in their own homes and communities."
And, the platform says, the Democratic Party is "committed to fighting the immense problem of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation" (though it doesn't say how that would be done). It's worth remembering that the party achieved passage of The Elder Justice Act as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
Agreement With Republicans
Like the Republicans, the Democrats have embraced allowing the importation of prescription drugs, as the platform states, “from licensed pharmacies in Canada and other countries with appropriate safety protections.” However, the proliferation of counterfeit drugs into our nation, including from foreign sources, should be recognized as a greater concern.
An Idea to Add to the Platform
One idea Clinton might consider: a White House Special Assistant for Older Adults. That person could be the spokesperson for aging policy in her administration. Many federal agencies have programs and policies impacting older adults and the number is growing. A coordinated approach would get greater results from existing funds and could help make a bipartisan case to Congress for better targeted additional resources.
Democrats have an opportunity once more to win back a larger share of the senior vote. But to do so, they need to be more aggressive in demonstrating their value by focusing on keeping programs like Social Security strong, bolstering the safety net and fighting elder abuse and neglect.
On to November we go!