The Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu is waiting for 2042, because, in that year, white people will become a minority in the United States.
I, on the other hand, am waiting for 2050. That is the year people 65+ will become a majority in our country. I may or may not be alive then but the prospect is nevertheless enticing as well as staggering. Just imagine that in a country that worships youth and vitality, old people will dominate. Even more intriguing is the thought that two out of five elders will be of color. In fact, in some states like California, the proportion of Latinos will be greater than that of whites.
By 2040, the baby boomers, that seminal generation which protested against the Vietnam war, heralded free love, and brought Eastern spirituality into the mainstream, will be 85 years old. But don’t lose heart. There are some positive consequences associated with this grim statistic. While, currently, the over-65 population is majority Republican, the percentage of Democrats in that population will continue to rise. In twenty years, Texas will be a blue state. As the proportion of Hispanic and other minorities increases among the younger population, the Republican Party will not be able to win elections as easily in the future.
Does that mean we will just have to suffer through another Bush presidency or two before sanity reigns?
That is the good news in any case.
When it comes to bad news, there will be lots to worry about. Contrary to popular perception, baby boomers are less healthy than their parents. In spite of the prevalence of yoga, meditation, and gym memberships, baby boomers suffer from health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
While the share of people 65 or over living in nursing homes has declined over the years, from 4.6% or 1.6 million in 2000 to 3.1% or 1.3 million in 2010, the trend will soon reverse. Over two thirds of 65+ adults in America will need long term care. More older people will need to work. There will also be a voting gap, because older adults vote more regularly than younger ones.
I learned these fascinating facts at the annual conference of the Gerontological Society of America, which I attended in November 2014 in Washington, D.C. under the auspices of a journalism fellowship from New America Media. The meeting was a revelation. I had no idea that so many reporters around the country were devoted to the subject of aging. In fact, before print media began to shrink, the aging beat was the mainstay of newspapers. Even now, while Fox News and other television outlets concentrate on the millennial generation, it is print journalism that carries the baton for reporting on our aging nation.
And on what issues will they be reporting in the future? It turns out there is plenty to worry about.
So far, the older population has been less poor than the younger population in our country, thanks to a little thing called Social Security. But that might change if the right wing gets away with its pet proposals, one of which is a revised way to calculate inflation for Social Security, called the Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI). What the chained CPI does is it assumes that when prices go up, people will consume lower cost substitutes in place of pricier items. If the price of beef rises, for example, people will eat chicken. Now, this particular example may make the idea look like a good one, but you quickly realize that this logic does not apply to everything we consume, including healthcare and nutritional food. Substituting organic veggies with Mcdonald’s is obviously a bad idea and as to substituting apples for oranges, well, that is an economist’s no-no.
The chained CPI has been endorsed by the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and supported by such groups as the Gang of Six and the Simpson-Bowles Commission, bodies tasked with reducing the federal budget. What is even more troubling is that during the “budge cliff” crisis of 2012, President Obama himself proposed shifting to this method of calculating inflation. The president’s budget for 2014 also contained this provision.
Ironically, the Republicans, who oppose everything President Obama proposes, reacted negatively, saving the seniors. The bad news is that the specter of the chained CPI, opposed by the AARP and many Democrats, now looms large on American elders. With both houses of Congress in the hands of the Republicans, Democrats may well be coerced to agree to it under duress.
Studies show that over time, the new CPI will erode Social Security payments and other benefits, making it harder for elders to survive. The average earner retiring at age 65 will lose $658 each year until he or she turns 75; the cuts will add up to $1,147 each year by age 85. The cumulative cuts to people on Social Security will reach $28,000 by the time a retiree is 95.
Since the Internal Revenue Service uses the COLA or Cost of Living Adjustment to ensure that people aren’t pushed into higher tax brackets because of inflation, the chained CPI will also effectively increase tax rates, particularly for middle-income earners making between $30,00 and $40,000 a year, who will face six times the tax increase for millionaires.
As I sat in the conference hall, listening to these troubling facts, I realized that at middle age, I myself faced an uncertain future.
I also learned that programs like Meals on Wheels, which were authorized in 1965 as a part of the Older Americans Act, are now threatened. The Budget Control Act of 2011 imposed cuts in non-defense discretionary spending and resulted in dramatic reductions in senior nutrition and other programs. Only Republicans and right-wingers would label nutrition as discretionary, you might think. But sadly President Obama’s 2015 budget submission also proposed level funding for many programs, which means that over time, they will not be able to meet rising need.
What does this mean for real people? For Eva Perdue, a 64-year old widow in Georgia who suffers from high blood pressure and liver disease, it means having only $98 left per month in addition to the $68 in food stamps she receives after paying bills out of her $848 monthly Social Security check. On a typical day, Purdue eats breading from two corn dogs for breakfast, the meat from which she gives to her 18-year old grandson. She cannot eat a healthier breakfast of cereal because she cannot afford milk, a gallon of which costs three or four dollars, money Perdue does not have. Lunch is a small salad with rust-tinged cabbage and carrots from a convenience store up the street. What is even more tragic is that Purdue is not sure if or what she will eat the next day. Purdue applied to Meals on Wheels but was put on a waiting list for over a year.
Perdue’s story, outlined in an article titled the “Real Hunger Games in the Nation,” highlighted for me the real danger seniors face in the United States today.
The facts are staggeringly dismal. In 2005, 11 percent of the senior population or 5 million people over 60 faced hunger; in 2012, 15% were threatened with what economists elegantly call “food insecurity.” Between 2001 and 2010, there was a 78 percent growth in the number of seniors facing starvation.
While blacks and Hispanics have traditionally been the victims of this hardship, rising numbers of whites, particularly white women in rural areas, are experiencing hunger.
But the biggest con job perpetrated on the American citizen by the Republicans is the myth that social security is the cause of our federal deficit and that it is broke. Nancy Altman, co-founder of Social Security Works, while acknowledging the real danger of abolishment the program faces under a Republican Congress, challenges many such myths. Social Security is far from broke, she notes, with a surplus of $2.7 trillion, expected to grow to $2.9 trillion by 2020. Social Security is not the cause of the federal deficit because 97% of it is funded by contributions from workers and employers, or interest on these contributions. Even if Congress takes no action, Social Security can pay 100% of promised benefits for the next two decades. Around 2033 there will be a modest funding gap requiring modest increases in revenues. But what Republicans like Paul Ryan do not want you to know is the fact that most of the funding gap can be closed by eliminating the cap on payroll tax, which lets millionaires and billionaires pay Social Security only on the first $117,000 of their income.
I must admit that by the end of the very first day of the conference, I began to feel depressed.
But then I imagined what our world will look like in 2050.
In 2050, no politician will be able to ignore the needs of the new, 65+ majority. With so much ongoing research on healthcare for seniors, new programs and technologies will become available. Corporations will rush to provide affordable senior housing, including assisted care facilities and nursing homes. Perhaps innovative types of co-housing will also be available.
And who will pay for all this? I recall a remark my brother made the last time I was in India. “We have the youngest and the most technically qualified workforce,” he said. “We will take over the world.”
Yes, young immigrants from India will enter our economy and pay new Social Security contributions to the system. But we do need to make sure that they have the right education and mindset to resist propaganda.
So perhaps it is worth waiting for 2050.
Sarita Sarvate wrote this article supported by a fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by AARP.