Social Welfare professor Fernando Torres-Gil,one of the nation's foremost experts on aging and gerontology, has identified the upcoming presidential election as one that wil have a major effect on a growing generation of older citizens.
Torres-Gil, who is also the Director for the Center of Policy Research and Aging, answered some important questions hovering over the election and the public.
Question: Why is there public concern about funding Medicare, Social Security and other public benefits for the elderly?
Answer: Since the inception of entitlement programs such as Medicare (1965), Social Security (1935) and Medicaid (1965), the general public has come to view these programs as an entitlement; if you grow old and pay taxes, these public benefits will give you a measure of security for yourself as you grow old and for your parents and grandparents. The ongoing debates about debts, deficits and taxes, however, have brought to the public consciousness that, in fact, these entitlements may be at risk or less able to account for the growing retirement insecurity felt by many Americans, especially during this ongoing recession. Thus political and media coverage about the future of these public benefits and whether they are sustainable or relevant, create great anxiety especially among those currently receiving these benefits and those getting close to eligibility.
Q: How do changing demographics affect the public perception of growing old in this country and the debates around entitlement programs?
A: In important respects, the United States, as well as much of the world, is facing a demographic revolution; longevity and expanding life expectancy. Never before has humankind had the possibility to live a long and relatively good old age. Yet, the public benefits and entitlement programs based on age and focused on the elderly were developed when longevity was far less and there was little understanding about the long-term consequences of living longer. Thus, for example, as more individuals become eligible for Social Security and Medicare, and fertility rates decline, there will be fewer taxpayers and more beneficiaries. Pension and retirement plans —municipal, state and federal — assumed that one could retire as early as 50 or 55 years of age and continue to receive a guaranteed monthly pension check for a lifetime; assumptions that did not take into account either continued increases in life expectancies nor the actual long-term costs of these promises.
Q: Why do “Baby Boomers” elicit strong reactions in the public debates about entitlement programs and aging?
A: Simply put, baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, will double the number of older persons in the United States. By 2029, the 70 to 75 million members of this age cohort will all be 65 years of age and over. Thus, there are real concerns about how we will pay for their Social Security, Medicare, long-term care and retirement needs. No one really factored in this growth of future beneficiaries when current pension and public benefits for retirees and the elderly where first enacted. In addition, baby boomers have had inordinate influence on the popular culture and have benefited greatly from the public investments of their parents and grandparents: The Greatest Generation. Yet, these offspring appear to have an aversion to paying taxes or continuing to invest in public needs for education, transportation, public works or health care for all persons. The dichotomy of an aging baby boomer cohort expecting to receive the same or greater level of old-age benefits as their parents and grandparents and the reality that they and the general public have great reticence to expend public dollars creates the current polarization around the role of government and the responsibility of individuals to address the pending demographic revolution of aging and living longer.
Q: What is the relevance of immigration reform, the Dream Act and the growth of minorities to the current debates about aging, Medicare and Social Security?
A: Simply put, the United States is facing a unique confluence of demographic, social and political “storms” that will complicate our response to a nation growing older. While we enjoy increased life expectancy and the 75 million baby boomers look forward to their old age and retirement, the United States will become a much different nation given the growth of minorities and immigrants. By 2050, the United States will become a majority-minority country and Hispanics will be the nation’s largest minority group at 30 percent of the population. Added to this, however, is another less-understood trend; the movement toward having fewer children. The United States has fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1; the number of children per child-bearing female needed to sustain a population. It appears that the only group in the U.S. with above replacement levels continues to be Hispanics and immigrants from around the world. Thus, if native-born Americans have fewer children it raises an important policy question: who will be the future workforce upon whom we will expect to pay the taxes to sustain public benefits for the elderly? The answer increasingly appears to be that Hispanics and immigrants may become a more crucial part of the workforce; both for the economy and for the military. This, however, raises another provocative question: are we investing in the education, training and health care needs of this future workforce? Passing a Dream Act and enacting comprehensive immigration reform, while viscerally opposed, especially by white retirees, may in fact be both a conservative and progressive approach toward recruiting additional future workers.
Q: What are some of the personal concerns of individuals and an aging nation?
A: As we live longer and with fewer children, the issues of aging become very personal and intimate. All of us will face, at some point, the chronic conditions and disabilities associated with growing old, although we are living longer, healthier and with fewer disabilities. And all of us must be prepared to answer a rhetorical question: who will take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves? The traditional expectation that our families — spouses and children — will meet these needs is less likely given changes in the American family structure. Thus the absence of long-term care and home and community-based services among most persons (with the exception of those who qualify for Medicaid or the few that purchase long-term care insurance policies) will guarantee a growing crisis in long term care. And with longevity we will face intimate questions of death and dying and the proper roles of living to be 100 years of age. These personal concerns transcend gender, race, ideology and politics and will be the great equalizer as we all grow old and live longer.