In mid-terms, seniors swing left to expand social safety net

Democrats recognize that expanding (not cutting) Social Security and Medicare is not only winning politics, but also profoundly wise policy.



(Nov. 13, 2018) — The 2018 midterm elections are over, and pundits are busily dissecting the results. The actions of seniors, also known as “always voters” because of their consistent turnout, are a so-far overlooked story.

This midterm saw a seven percentage-point swing from Republican to Democratic by voters aged 65 and older, from 41% support for Democrats in the 2014 midterms to nearly half of seniors supporting them this year, based on CNN exit polling. Other polls also showed a big shift.

Moreover, this election cycle saw retirees give more money to Democratic candidates than Republican candidates for the first time since donation tracking started in 1990.

Seniors helped Democrats recapture a majority in the House of Representatives. This result is a victory for the economic security of all Americans, because of the Democratic Party’s strong commitment to protecting and expanding Social Security and Medicare.

This stampede of seniors away from the Republican Party and toward Democrats is easy to understand. The Democratic Party and those running under its banner recognize that expanding and not cutting these programs is not only winning politics, but also profoundly wise policy.

Expanding Social Security, including increasing benefits for everyone, as well as targeting other increases to the most vulnerable beneficiaries and improving the formula for cost-of-living adjustment so that it reflects the real expenses retirees face, is a solution to our looming retirement crisis. It is also a solution to the growing squeeze on middle-class families.

As the wealthiest country in the history of the world at the wealthiest moment in our history, we can afford to expand Social Security’s benefits and address the system’s modest shortfall by requiring everyone to contribute on all of their income at the same rate. (Social Security contributions are deducted on wages up to $128,400; the ceiling rises to $132,900 next year.)

Other financing options include dedicating a restored estate tax to Social Security and increasing rather than slashing immigration. Because immigrants are much younger than the population as a whole, they will be paying into Social Security for decades to come.

Expanding Social Security’s benefits while requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share is also a solution to our growing wealth and income inequality.

Improving Medicare and expanding it to everyone is a solution to fixing our inadequate, unfair, inefficient and impossible-to-understand health-care system. Fortunately, seniors saw through Donald Trump’s pre-election lie that improving and expanding Medicare would hurt seniors. The truth, of course, is that adding vital benefits, including vision, hearing, and dental, eliminating premiums, co-pays and deductibles and expanding it to cover everyone will benefit all of us, including seniors. Seniors paid close attention when Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced the Republican desire to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid if they retained control of both chambers of Congress.

Fortunately, the American people have given the Democrats control of the House of Representatives. That will allow Democrats to make progress expanding these vital programs. Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.), co-chair of the Expand Social Security Caucus, will chair the House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Social Security in the new Congress. He has promised to hold hearings on expanding Social Security’s modest benefits.

In addition to having experts testify on the wisdom of this policy, the hearings will examine the many expansion bills, including his own Social Security 2100 Act, so named because it increases benefits for everyone while also ensuring that all benefits can be paid in full and on time through the year 2100 and beyond. The bill currently has more than 170 co-sponsors in the House. With a new legion of House freshmen who have committed to Social Security expansion arriving, the number co-sponsoring his Social Security expansion legislation is bound to surge.

Similar proposals and hearings are likely on the related issues of expanding Medicare and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Of course, since Republicans still control the Senate and White House, it’s unlikely that these proposals will become law. But with Democrats in control of the House, Republicans will be forced to vote on expanding Social Security and restoring it to long-range actuarial balance. They will have to vote on improving and expanding Medicare. And on lowering prescription drug prices.

That will put them in a bind: their donors will want them to vote no, but their constituents will want them to vote yes. Whichever way they vote, progress will be made. Either legislation will be enacted or those voting against the bills will be on record opposing policies overwhelmingly supported by the American people.

In this midterm election, American families dodged a major threat to their economic security. If Republicans had retained control of the House, they would felt emboldened to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Those Republican politicians who are so eager to cut these programs should reflect on the words of President Dwight Eisenhower. In proposing to expand Social Security, he said that this essential program is “a reflection of the American heritage of sturdy self-reliance.” (In fact, in a private letter to his brother, Eisenhower stated that “should any political party attempt to abolish social security… you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”)

The future of Social Security is a question of values, not affordability. In this new political landscape, no longer do champions of Social Security and Medicare have to focus on holding the line against cuts.

Now, there is an opportunity to imagine more boldly, to move us closer towards the promise of President Franklin Roosevelt that Americans have the freedom that comes with basic economic security “from the cradle to the grave.”

Nancy Altman is President of Social Security Works and Chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition and campaign. This column originally appeared at MarketWatch.

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