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Opinion: Why the midterm elections are key to protecting senior benefit programs

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are in the crosshairs of many Republicans. Having enacted a $1.5 trillion tax cut and, later, agreed to half a trillion or so in additional federal spending, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other supporters have said they intend to curb what they wrongly label as entitlement programs as a way of rediscovering the fiscal austerity they eagerly abandoned in support of President Trump’s policies.

It is highly unlikely anything of substance will happen before November’s midterm elections. There are good reasons why messing with senior benefit programs has been considered a shortcut to being elected out of office. And with poll after poll showing enormous support for these programs, any kind of direct assault is risky at any time but particularly when it might be seen as a class-based response to those enormous tax cuts.

The loudest voices supporting safety-net programs generally belong to liberal/progressive groups. They tend to strongly oppose President Trump, the GOP, and pretty much anyone who would cut programs that serve nearly all older Americans, as well as people with disabilities and low incomes.

Despite their voices, safety-net supporters have not been effective in protecting these programs. There has been no financial improvement to Social Security, even though the date of its projected insolvency has been known for decades and has been steadily moving from the distant future to just over the horizon. That bewitching hour is now projected to occur in 2034, at which time Social Security would be able to pay only 77 cents of each dollar it owes to beneficiaries.

Medicare has been buffeted by continued high rates of health-care inflation, against which any meager efforts by Congress and the White House have been ineffectual. Republicans continue to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, the pressure to cut benefits has been rising. And while Medicare premiums are heavily subsidized by the government, enrollee costs have been rising as well, putting growing pressure on the household budgets of seniors and disabled Medicare beneficiaries.

Medicaid is doubly challenged, because its future rests on the financial soundness of federal and state budgets. Turning the program into a system of fixed block grants from Washington has been a wish of Speaker Ryan for some time. With state budgets under intense pressure, it’s not surprising that we’re also seeing requests from individual states for Medicaid waivers that would reduce state financial exposure, introduce work requirements, and generally make it harder for people to get Medicaid benefits that often already fall short of meeting people’s needs.

The result, as powerfully measured in a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, is a future of growing financial stress for older Americans, who are the nation’s fastest growing demographic. The picture gets even darker with proposals in the latest Trump budget, including replacing the food-stamp program (now known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) with a system of boxed meals that has been universally panned by nutritionists.

Against this backdrop, this fall’s congressional midterm elections shape up as hugely consequential for safety-net issues. Democratic majorities in either the House or Senate would, for the time being, protect against further weakening of these programs. Continuing Republican majorities would permit the attacks to continue.

Given such powerful public support, at least in percentage terms, the lack of clout exhibited by safety-net advocates is puzzling, if not alarming. As someone up to his neck in senior financial and health care issues, it’s clear there’s a disconnect in translating public support into success at the ballot box. However, I just came across some research that may provide at least a partial explanation.

SmartAsset, a web-based provider of personal finance tools, recently took a look at which cities are home to our most successful seniors. It used half a dozen statistical measures — average retirement income, percent of seniors with retirement income, poverty rate for seniors, percent of seniors on food stamps, percent of seniors who own their home, and percent of seniors who struggle with paying their housing costs.

I did not find many surprises in the results. There is a lot here of what the stats crowd would call “self-selection bias.” Affluent retirees often move to warm cities, particularly those that cater to retirees.

Then I asked SmartAsset to re-run the numbers for me. Instead of looking at cities, I asked, could they show me what these six indicators looked like when the areas being measured were U.S. congressional districts? Thanks to the beauty of number crunching, I quickly had the results.

The most successful congressional districts for retirees are all over the country. Pick an affluent suburb or area, and you are likely to find a place with lots of successful retirees – at least measured by their financial condition.

What wasn’t all over the map, however, was the political party of the person representing these districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. Looking at the 25 districts at the top of the SmartAsset list, the first 16 were all represented by Republicans. A grand total of three of the top 25 were represented by Democrats.

I then looked at the Partisan Voter Index (PVI) developed by the Cook Political Report. Looking at recent presidential elections, the measure depicts how strongly a district voted Republican or Democrat compared with the national vote. It is widely cited as a measure of how vulnerable incumbents will be this fall. Cook often uses an index of plus or minus 6 as a cut-off point in looking at which seats might flip in November.

Among SmartAsset’s 25 most successful districts, 19 had PVI scores favoring Republicans by more than 6 points, and usually by much more. The bottom line here is that many places with affluent seniors are solidly Republican.

Senior advocates who would like to work to flip such Republican districts to the Democrat side of the aisle may not get much traction by warning of safety-net cuts under continued GOP majority rule. Ditto for complaints that the Trump tax cuts favor the rich and worsen economic inequality. Seniors in these districts aren’t so worried – at least today – about safety-net cuts. As for the tax cuts, they are also the winners here, again at least in the short run until the law’s personal tax cuts expire in 10 years.

If Republicans in these “successful” districts are vulnerable this fall, their opponents will need to make inroads not with economic arguments but with other issues. Response to shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida is one such issue. The GOP’s sensitivity here can be seen in decisions by some conservatives and large companies to part company with the National Rifle Association. Another powerful issue is the #MeToo movement. If Democrats can substantially boost voter turnout on these issues among younger voters and women, they stand to flip a lot of seats.

If I was AARP or the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, or the Medicare Rights Center, or any number of other senior advocacy groups, I’d park my safety-net placards in the garage and get out there courting young voters and wearing a whole lot of pink.

Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller is here to provide the answers you need on aging and retirement. His weekly column, “Ask Phil,” aims to help older Americans and their families by answering their health care and financial questions. Phil is the author of the new book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil; and he will answer as many as he can.

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