America’s most prominent senior citizen—78-year old Joe Biden—didn’t say anything about older Americans during his inaugural address Wednesday. But the new president made it clear during his campaign that he intends to protect, if not bolster, programs that are vital to their well-being.
That’s welcome news to advocacy groups. But what specifically should Biden do, now that he is in the White House? I asked a few experts to list their top priorities and this is what they said.
Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare policy analyst, The Senior Citizens League:
- Reduce prescription drug prices. Surveys conducted by The Senior Citizens League last year found that more than 18% of survey participants postponed filling prescriptions due to price spikes, Johnson says. An overwhelming majority, 83%, also think that prescription drug price should be linked to the rate of inflation. The numbers tell the story: The official inflation rate last year was 1.3%, but drug prices, according to an analysis from GoodRx, a medical and health care services provider, calculates that 589 drugs—all but seven brand medications—just went up an average 4.2%. That’s nearly three full percentage points more than the cost of living hike Social Security gave seniors. “Reducing drug costs would not only help retirees,” Johnson says, “it would reduce government spending in low income programs that cover the cost of prescriptions such as Medicare Extra Help.”
Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for retirement Research at Boston College:
- Eliminate Social Security’s 75-year deficit, preferably by maintaining promised benefits and increasing revenues. Of course, when Munnell says “increasing revenues,” that means higher taxes. In 2021, the first $142,800 of income is subject to Social Security taxes, though some proponents have urged lifting the salary cap that is subject to taxes completely.
- Close the “coverage gap” for employer-sponsored plans by passing federal auto-IRA legislation. Auto-IRA legislation would require companies with more than 10 employees that do not have a workplace retirement savings plan to enroll their workers in IRAs through an automatic payroll deduction plan. Munnell points out that only about half of all private sector workers participate in a retirement plan now. “As a result, many end up with only Social Security at retirement and others, who cycle in and out of coverage, retire with only a pittance in 401(k)/IRA balances.” She points out that such programs already exist in Oregon, California and Illinois.
Maya MacGuinness, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
- Secure the major trust funds. Citing data from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, MacGuinness says that all three major trust fund programs that benefit seniors are projected to run out of money in the next decade or so: Medicare Hospital Insurance by 2024, Social Security Disability by 2026, and the Social Security old age program by 2031. ”Without action, these programs will need to impose abrupt, sharp, across-the-board cuts,” MacGuinness warns.
The phrase “without action” also implies tax hikes. That’s easier said than done, of course, given the razor-thin majorities that Biden has to work with in the new Congress. Republicans will certainly fight any efforts to raise taxes—even if it means being accused of an unwillingness to help Social Security and Medicare, vital programs that their constituents rely on.
There’s a well-worn phrase here in Washington: “Kicking the can down the road.” That’s when politicians, unable or unwilling to tackle a tough problem, just delay it. For the kinds of issues that Johnson, Munnell and MacGuinness are talking about, that’s been the case for years. The can keeps getting down the road, and the problems fester.
Let’s hope that our new president, who has a reputation for deal-making and reaching out to his opponents, can do better than his predecessors have.