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2020 Election: What Biden's Democratic Platform Proposes for People 50+

A close look at what's mentioned — and what isn't

By Chris Farrell
Next Avenue's 2020 Election Guide graphic

(We know that the 2020 election is vitally important to our readers and we’ve been continually publishing articles about the policy proposals from Democratic presidential hopefuls and President Trump. Here’s a close look at ideas in the draft of the Democratic platform that could keenly affect Americans 50 and older; the Democratic presidential convention starts August 17. Once there is a draft of the 2020 Republican platform, we will publish an article analyzing its proposals, too.— The editors)

Former Vice President Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden  |  Credit: PBS NewsHour

What might be the implications for Americans 50 years and older if Democrat Joe Biden wins the race for the White House?

A close look at the Democratic platform draft as well as Biden's website and interviews with analysts suggests that Biden wants to tackle several major challenges confronting those in the second half of life. It lays out the kind of policy framework President Obama had, but several initiatives take it a step farther — perhaps an additional two to three steps.

Reading through the draft Democratic platform, the cumulative effect is that the federal government would take on a bigger role in everything from retirement security to health care to sustainability. A core idea: animating the greater government activism with policies to improve the general welfare and social connectedness.

The Platform's Focus and What's Missing

“It’s a focus on the common good and sharing risk and strengthening the safety net, including the retirement safety net,” says Norm Ornstein, political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

That said, Biden’s platform is big on promises and light on funding details, which isn’t uncommon for party platforms. And, of course, if Biden does become president, the fate of his legislative ambitions will depend on which party controls the Senate and the House of Representatives. We’ll know that on Nov. 3, or fairly soon thereafter.

Highlights and analysis of the draft Democratic party platform:

Caregiving, caregivers and long-term care: The most striking part of Biden’s platform — to me — is its emphasis on supporting the professional long-term care workforce serving older adults in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and in homes, as well as assisting family caregivers.

Biden calls for improving the pay and benefits of the low-wage direct care workforce, such as home care aides and personal care assistants. They often earn minimum wage with no benefits.

The draft platform backs a national minimum wage of $15 an hour for the caregiving workforce. In addition, they’d get up to 12 weeks of federally provided paid family and medical leave.

“They are among the hardest working people, yet the lowest paid workers,” says Eric Kingston, professor of social work at Syracuse University. “The emphasis on caregiving is long overdue.”

The estimated 40 million+ unpaid family caregivers would also get a financial boost.  Among the ideas Biden backs is an annual tax credit of up to $5,000 for informal caregivers to reimburse expenses. Unpaid family caregivers would also be able to accrue Social Security benefits for the time they spend caregiving. And they’d be allowed to make “catch-up” contributions to retirement accounts, even if they’re not earning an income.

Older Americans who buy long-term care insurance and pay for it from their retirement savings would get a generous tax break, too.

Biden’s platform also embraces state Medicaid home- and community-based care for low-income adults. Its $450 billion initiative targets getting 800,000 people off waiting lists for community care.

The plan falls well short of universal long-term care coverage, though.

For example, it doesn’t include much to benefit middle-income recipients of long-term care and their families, Howard Gleckman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, recently wrote for Forbes. “These are the millions of people who are not poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid, but do not have sufficient resources to purchase assistance on their own,” he said.

Still, analysts like Gleckman applaud Biden for grasping the need for better long-term care support and services.

“This proposal recognizes, if you’re going to be serious about home-based and community services, it will take real dollars,” says Ruth Katz, senior vice president for public policy/advocacy at LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services.

Taxes and Health Care

Taxes: They’d be going up. Much of the initial round of Biden’s tax increases would come from reversing many of Trump’s signature tax cuts from 2017. This would impact upper-income Americans the most, regardless of age.

For example, Biden wants to roll back Trump’s 20% long-term capital gains tax on investments and restore the 39.6% top tax rate for anyone making over $1 million. He’d also close loopholes that wealthy Americans avoid taxes on capital gains altogether and raise estate taxes “back to the historical norm,” according to the draft platform.

Health care: “The health care proposals are really trying to take Obamacare to the next level,” says Ornstein. “It’s probably the next thing Obama would have done if he could have a third term. The Affordable Care Act [ACA] was always a step toward robust universal coverage.”

Biden’s draft platform would give everyone the option of choosing a public health insurance option like Medicare. Intriguingly, it also proposes lowering the Medicare age from 65 to 60, for those who want to enroll earlier than they can today. That would benefit early retirees, whether they were laid off or voluntarily left employment, perhaps to start their own businesses.

The lowest-income Americans would be automatically enrolled in the public option without health care premiums; they could opt out at any time.

For people losing health insurance coverage due to lost jobs resulting from the pandemic, the federal government would pick up 100% of the cost of COBRA (the federal law extending employers’ health insurance for workers who lose it).

And there are several ideas to lower prescription drug costs that Democrats have pushed for years — including some Trump has supported. Medicare would be free to negotiate prices with drug companies; makers of Medicare-covered prescriptions wouldn’t be allowed to raise prices by more than inflation and consumers could legally buy prescription drugs from other countries.

The draft platform says Democrats “will cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors,” but doesn’t offer a dollar amount for the cap. It also talks about ensuring that effective treatments for chronic health conditions are available “at little or no cost,” but doesn’t explain how that would happen.

Although the Trump Administration has tried to repeal the ACA — Obama’s signature legislation —and made it less comprehensive, Biden would expand the ACA with the goal of lowering Americans’ health care costs. If costs fell, that would be a boon to those in the second half of life and not yet eligible for Medicare.

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No family buying insurance on the individual marketplace, regardless of income, would spend more than 8.5% of income on health insurance. And tax credits would be based on the marketplaces’ more generous gold plan, rather than the silver plan.

Biden also wants to create a Public Health Jobs Corps to mobilize at least 100,000 people and help identify those at risk of contracting or spreading infectious diseases. Think of a public health version of Teach for America, with jobs as community health workers and elsewhere.

“People have talked about it for a long time,” says Katz.

A Public Health Jobs Corps might be an option for experienced workers looking for encore careers.

Social Security, Retirement and Working Longer

Social Security: Early in the first Obama administration, numerous Democrats flirted with the idea of serious deficit reduction including cuts in Social Security benefits, possibly by raising the retirement age. Those days are gone with the Biden platform.

In fact, “Biden is calling for increases in Social Security benefits and no benefit cuts,” says Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics at the New School for Social Research and the Director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. “No sneaky cuts as a result of raising the retirement age.”

Among the draft platform’s Social Security proposals:

  • Improve Social Security’s long-term solvency (its trust fund is expected to be depleted by 2035 or perhaps sooner due to the pandemic) by having Americans with high wages pay the same Social Security payroll taxes that middle-class families pay. The platform didn’t offer specifics, but Biden has said he’d require people to pay Social Security taxes on income over roughly $400,000. Today, employment earnings of up to $137,700 are subject to Social Security payroll taxes.
  • The oldest beneficiaries — people receiving Social Security retirement benefits for at least 20 years — would get a higher monthly check (not stated: how much higher) to help protect against dwindling retirement savings. And workers who spent 30 years employed would get a benefit of at least 125% of the poverty level.
  • Surviving spouses would keep a higher share of Social Security benefits. Biden would raise the monthly payment by about 20% for them.

Retirement security and savings: Here, the approach is pragmatic rather than bold. The Democratic draft platform doesn’t favor universal retirement savings plans (an idea floated by various Republican and Democratic administrations since President Carter). “I was looking for the word to delink pensions from employers,” said Ghilarducci. “I don’t see it.”

The biggest change here would convert tax-deductible contributions to 401(k)s, which favor higher-income families, into tax credits equalizing the tax break for all income levels. Ghilarducci thinks this would lead to most people eligible for 401(k) plans putting at least some money into them.

The platform also mentions providing “more equitable access” to employer-sponsored retirement plans through automatic enrollment.

For workers without access to employer-sponsored retirement savings plans, Biden would offer employers incentives to create “automatic 401(k)s” for employees.

Working longer: The platform is sketchy but says that “Democrats will invest in career and technical education and high-quality job training programs.”

Biden also favors bipartisan legislation offering greater protections for older workers against being workforce discrimination due to their age.

And he calls for expanding the unemployment insurance system to cover independent contractors and gig workers, many of whom are over 50.

The platform also would prioritize support for Black entrepreneurs and other entrepreneurs of color, as well as women entrepreneurs. And it talks about “exploring innovative approaches to closing racial wealth gaps, including policies that provide seed capital in order to access the economic security of asset ownership.”

Climate Change

Climate change: While a concern for Americans at all ages, a Next Avenue reader survey of our 50+ readers taken before the pandemic found climate change was the Number One election issue for them.

The Democratic draft platform calls for rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and greatly increasing federal investments in clean energy research and development, including spending $2 trillion over four years to shift millions of jobs into the clean energy sector and cutting carbon emissions from power generation to zero by 2030.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the books Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life and Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. Read More
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