The Middle Aged: Democrats have failed to sufficiently address the economic insecurity of this large and important cohort of working- and middle-class citizens
by Henry Moss
Henry Moss is a retired private sector educational administrator with a PhD in philosophy. He lives in the Bronx and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
About 45% of Americans are between the ages of 40 and 65, roughly the middle ages. Their political importance, however, is even greater than the numbers suggest as they worry not only about themselves but about their adult children and aging parents, and, in many cases, grandchildren and grandparents. This “sandwiching” means they worry far more than any other cohort and are interested in policies that are multigenerational in scope. They speak for the vast majority of the electorate.
This worry transcends race, gender and sexual preference and stretches from the working poor to the many upper middle class workers who are experiencing economic insecurity. Weak productivity growth over the last generation and sustained economic stagnation since 2008 have significantly amplified this anxiety.
Today’s Democratic Party, progressive and centrist alike, does not directly address this cohort and is suffering the consequences. Minimum wage, women’s issues, climate change, NSA surveillance, gay marriage, money in politics, voter ID, immigration, net neutrality, affirmative action, consumer protection and too-big-to-fail banking reform are all worthwhile causes but largely distant and abstract for the majority of those seeking to provide for extended families. Promoting issues aimed at getting specific constituencies out to vote is not the basis for bringing more of this cohort into the party.
On the more relevant matter of jobs and economic security, we hear from Democrats mostly vague neo-Keynesian proposals regarding road and bridge repair and subsidized jobs in green energy. Infrastructure and more infrastructure, we are told, along with a commitment to education and training that are supposed to ensure future economic growth. Promoting trade barriers to keep unions happy and railing against corporations, Wall Street and rich CEO’s adds a touch of motivational populism, but does not tangibly address needs.
We need to address real needs and we do so without considering costs. If we can mobilize resources to fight wars, we can do the same to protect and improve living standards.
What middle-aged voters want to hear from Democrats concerning economic security
Income security and underemployment: Losing a job at 50 years of age can be devastating. Transitioning to a new job is fraught with difficulty. Such workers can be victimized by narrow or outdated skill sets or prior income levels that cannot or will not be met by new employers who rightly expect such new employees to “keep looking”. There are also geographical challenges and the threat of bankruptcy, foreclosure and bad credit ratings. With the economy in a prolonged period of stagnation and with labor unions in decline, underemployment is now a major problem. Increased stress and anxiety levels can cause or exacerbate chronic health conditions.
• Unemployment compensation should be significantly lengthened and compensation levels must allow for meeting critical expenses during transition
• Recognize and include those who are involuntarily underemployed in the unemployment compensation system.
• Automatically reduce mortgage, student loan and medical debt payments up to a limit during transition.
• The retirement age should not be raised. It should even be lowered in the event of economic stagnation.
• Expand grants to states to support short-term and on-the-job retraining and internship programs. Community colleges should run these programs and tax credits should be provided to companies who provide the service.
• Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.
• Increase the federal minimum wage. This will support spouses and children who are forced into the workforce to support family income.
• Require that disability benefits, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, at least five paid holidays and at least one week of paid vacation time be provided for all full-time and permanent part-time workers.
• Ensure that working two-earner families and working single mothers receive childcare support through direct transfers or tax credits, sufficient to allow for a decent standard of living.
Medical care: Middle age is when chronic medical conditions begin to affect physical and mental well-being. It’s when the old-age jokes start and AARP asks one to sign up. Colonoscopies, skin and breast cancer screenings, cardiac stress tests, MRI’s and x-rays for incipient orthopedic conditions are recommended and may become routine. Those who smoked or abused alcohol start to suffer the long-term effects. Company plans and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are expensive and inefficient ways to deal with these emerging medical concerns. High deductibles discourage visits to physicians and reduce pre-emptive care. Job insecurity amplifies these problems.
• Medicare should be extended to cover those 50 years of age and up.
• For those under 50, a public option should be added to the ACA, with modest deductibles.
• ACA Medicaid should be extended to all states.
• The NIH should help control medical costs by establishing public-private partnerships for drug and medical technology development with restrictions placed on universities and research faculty who look to patent and commercialize their work and on companies who benefit from government-based research.
Long-term Eldercare: We already know that the 45- to 64-year-old population will grow only 1 percent between 2010 and 2030, while the age 80 and older baby boomer population increases by 79 percent. As the age 80 and older boomer cohort grows, the number of family caregivers available to assist them drops dramatically, from 7.5 in 2010 to 2.9 in 2050, a more than 50% decline. A third of boomer marriages had no children and, given increased divorce rates, geographical dispersion and expectations that more women over 55 will be in the workforce than ever before, the shortfall of caregivers over the next 35 years will become a major crisis.
While boomers may be healthier and wealthier than prior generations, mobility problems associated with obesity are expected to significantly increase, adding to the need for in-home caregiving. In addition, longer lifespans from reduced mortality from some diseases will result in an increase in the incidence and prevalence of dementia, the condition creating the greatest caregiving demands. Given miserable conditions in nursing homes, there will be immense pressure on family caregivers, mostly middle-aged adult children, to keep frail parents and grandparents in their homes. Rates of depression and anxiety disorders are much higher for such caregivers, particularly for those dealing with dementia.
• Medicaid should support family caregivers who want to keep frail elders in their homes by providing personal care aides for 12-24 hours daily, if needed. Only a small number of programs currently provide more than 6-8 hours of custodial care. If a nursing home must be used, such aides should be provided in the nursing home as well, to support overworked nurses and nurse aides.
• Personal care aides, half of whom are over 43 years of age, should be treated as paraprofessionals. Pay, benefits and training must be significantly increased. A substantial increase in the supply of well-paid and well-trained aides must be ensured to meet the crisis.
• Medicaid eligibility for frail elders must be loosened to allow them to keep a greater part of assets earned over a lifetime.
• The supply of geriatricians, geriatric nurses and geriatric psychiatrists must be significantly expanded through incentives. Geriatric care must become a mandated part of all medical training.
Housing and Urban Infrastructure: Democratic Party housing and urban development proposals have focused primarily on the poor and the infrastructure proposals rarely focus on housing. Yet 41 million households spend more than 30% of their income on housing, reaching over 60% in some regions. Working- and middle-class families with lower levels of residual income spend at the higher rates with younger families, the children of middle-aged parents, paying at the highest percentages. Add-on costs have also grown, as cable TV and the internet have gone from luxuries to necessities. The average age of residential housing stock is the highest in 40 years and growing older.
Over half the nation lives in Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA’s). These are blends of city and suburb where transportation/commuting, employment and communication are heavily intertwined and they will continue to grow. The towns and villages in near-urban suburbs, where a huge segment of the older middle and working class population resides (and will continue to reside), are in decline, economically and environmentally. The ending of the Sunbelt housing boom portends an era of stagnation in property values and the economics of suburban and small towns. There are significant shortages of low and middle-income urban and near-urban housing and the infrastructure of many cities (e.g., Detroit) is crumbling. Those cities with a tax base sufficient to sustain development and renewal (e.g., New York, San Francisco, Seattle) are too expensive for poor, working and middle class families.
The federal government should work with states to bring housing and associated costs to under 25% of income. There should be:
• Public funding or tax breaks for the construction of thousands of modestly priced urban and near-urban multi-family residences in MSA’s, to include a high-tech cores (internet, basic cable) and advanced environmental and climate control systems.
• Public funding to support free and low-cost public transportation options.
• Public funding to support free and low-cost internet and telecommunications access.
• Public investment in the parks, recreational facilities, clinics, schools, public safety and public colleges, that contribute to a sense of sustainable community.
Higher Education: The Democratic program calls for universal pre-K but does not address significant shortfalls in the community college system and rising tuition at state colleges. Community colleges have experienced significant budget cuts even while enrollments grow and graduation rates remain poor. Public four-year colleges have needed to dramatically increase tuition to compete with private colleges, particularly in the critical areas of science, technology and engineering studies and research. If the spirit of U.S. educational ascendancy in the 1960’s was best symbolized by the free higher education available to all California citizens, the current decline is best captured by latest round of tuition hikes in California in the face of state fiscal austerity. College tuition costs are a major concern of middle-aged parents who want to see their children and grandchildren get the education and skills needed for productive employment. The federal government should:
• Provide the financial support needed to rebuild integrated state two- and four-year college systems with at least the first two years tuition-free (at either a community or senior college). This will reduce student debt obligation and pressure private colleges to reduce tuition.
• Provide sufficient funding to support a higher percentage of full-time faculty members at community colleges.
• Allow for student loan debt to be expunged during bankruptcy proceedings.
• Require that community colleges expand their vocational mission through certificates, retraining programs and terminal two-year degree programs that supply technical workers for local industry.
• Ensure the universality of community college education by funding personalized counseling and tutorial services for students from educationally and economically disadvantaged circumstances, including those with language limitations and mild learning disabilities.