There are many lessons from the November midterm elections, but none is more striking than the deep division between young and older voters. According to exit polling by NBC News, voters over 60 outnumbered voters under 30 by a 2-1 margin. The divide is even starker when you see who they voted for — 55 percent of those 60 plus voted for Republicans, while 55 percent of those under 30 voted for Democrats.
The seniors lesson for the new GOP majority comes with a price tag. There is now an expectation that Republicans will make aging policy a priority — something the Democrats didn’t do and regretted on Election Day. Frankly, there is no doubt it should be a priority, given our senior population will double to 92 million, one in four Americans, by 2030.
There is still time to build the infrastructure — economic and social — to accommodate this growth, but it will take leadership by Republicans and cooperation from Democrats to make this happen. Failure to act on a comprehensive aging policy threatens the nation with bankruptcy, as many more seniors begin taking more money out of the system than there are taxpayers paying into it. Punting the ball to future Congresses just won’t cut it any longer.
Here are the priorities I believe should be at the top of the list for the new Congress:
• Fix Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The big three of aging policy have the potential to implode our economy unless fair, comprehensive, fixes are made beginning now. The risk is saddling sandwich-generation Americans (those who have young children and aging parents) with a financial obligation that is not sustainable.
• Reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015, provides critically important senior meals, adult protective services and job training/readiness for seniors. The problem is that the OAA, like most federal legislation, needs to be reauthorized — essentially reapproved — every five years. The OAA should have been reauthorized in 2009 and is now five years overdue. The fact that Congress can’t agree to fund meals for low-income seniors is not a good sign.
• Fund senior nutrition programs. Virtually every city, town and hamlet in America has programs providing meals in senior centers and to homebound seniors. Despite adding more than 10,000 seniors per day in the United States, funding for these critical meals remains at the same level as 2010. The simple fact is there are more seniors and fewer meals being provided. Failing to fund these meals actually costs the government money. Studies show seniors who receive these meals are healthier, which reduces Medicare and Medicaid costs substantially.
• Fund the Elder Justice Act. About 10 percent of seniors are the victims of elder abuse. Financial elder abuse in the nation adds up to almost $3 billion each year. Often times, when seniors are victims of financial elder abuse, they lose their entire life savings. The Federal response has been abysmal; only 2 percent of all federal funds expended on abuse fights elder abuse. Four years ago Congress passed the Elder Justice Act, which begins to address this issue, but sadly, it has never been funded. 2015 is the year to change that.
• Make affordable housing a priority. Many seniors pay 75 to 80 percent of their income for substandard housing, with just a couple of hundred dollars left for all other expenses. Congress needs to revamp the way Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does business. In San Diego, a senior can wait six or seven years for a housing voucher from HUD. The same is true throughout the country.
Senior voters represented 37 percent of the electorate in the midterms. They placed their faith in Republicans to get the job done on their behalf. Now they will be looking for ROI for their votes. If Democrats are to reclaim even a portion of the senior vote, they must work constructively with Republicans to get things done. Both parties must focus on articulating a systemic and meaningful vision for aging policy.
The 2016 elections aren’t all that far away. Seniors will be watching and keeping score.