It is no exaggeration to say that the nation’s two most important programs for seniors—Social Security and Medicare—are on the line in this November’s elections. This is not a matter of nuance; it’s truly existential. Whichever party controls Congress will influence whether Social Security and Medicare will continue as we know them—or be weakened and privatized. The outcome depends largely on how older Americans—who cast ballots more reliably than any other age group—vote in 2022.
For seniors, the stakes could not be higher, nor the choice clearer. “The Social Security you paid for from the time you had a job is on the ballot. Your right to vote is on the ballot. Even the democracy. Are you ready to fight for these things now?” said President Joe Biden at an August rally in Maryland.
The president was not exaggerating. Democrats have made earnest efforts to boost Social Security and Medicare in the 117th Congress—and to shore up the finances of both programs. They have introduced legislation in both the House and Senate to strengthen Social Security and expand benefits. Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which should significantly lower seniors’ prescription drug costs, with zero Republican support. Meanwhile, GOP members of Congress, who for years have mouthed general support for Social Security and Medicare, are now saying the quiet part out loud: They propose to break the fundamental promises of both programs.
You have to give Republicans credit for political brazenness, though perhaps recklessness is a better word. During an election year, Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the committee responsible for electing Republicans to the Senate, proposed a plan where Social Security and Medicare would have to be renewed every five years by Congress—putting both programs on a path toward steep budget cuts, if not outright elimination. Scott’s proposal garnered significant backlash, but that did not stop Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) from saying a few months later that Social Security and Medicare should be considered “discretionary” spending, placing seniors’ benefits at the mercy of the Congressional budget process every year.
Some Republican candidates for Congress have followed this path off the political cliff. As NBC News reported, “In major Senate and House races across the country, GOP candidates have called for cutting long-term Social Security spending to tackle inflation and resolve the program’s finances.” In Arizona, a state with one of the largest populations of retirees in the country, GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters endorsed the idea of gambling seniors’ earned benefits on the stock market. “Maybe we should privatize Social Security, right? Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it,” he said. Privatization is a terrible idea and a largely unpopular one, but conservative idealogues continue to push policies that are great for Wall Street, but harmful to seniors on fixed incomes.
Last June, the House Republican Study Committee’s budget blueprint included raising Social Security’s full retirement age—a massive benefit cut that ignores the fact that although some people are living longer, many are not able to continue working until age 70. The full retirement age has already been raised to 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later. Workers claiming Social Security before their full retirement age face reduced monthly benefits for life. Nearly half of retirees rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. The last thing they need is another increase in the retirement age—though this is one of the most popular ideas in Republican circles.
Social Security and Medicare are Democratic legacies, enacted by Democratic majorities in Congress and signed into law by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, respectively. Democrats realize that both programs face financing challenges. Social Security’s combined trust fund is projected to become depleted by 2035 if Congress fails to take preventative action. The Medicare Part A trust fund will run out in 2028 without congressional help. While Republicans want future seniors to bear the burden of shoring up Social Security’s finances, Representative John Larson (D-Conn.) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), among others, champion solutions that produce more revenue, such as asking the wealthy to contribute their fair share in payroll taxes—allowing an actual boost in benefits.
Social Security and Medicare are not the only issues affecting seniors, who bore much of the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic both in terms of lives lost and personal finances drained. The rising cost of health care, housing, and long-term care represent serious challenges that must be solved. But conservatives oppose any tax increases for the wealthy or profitable corporations that might help address these challenges. The GOP’s blind faith in the private sector to solve seniors’ problems has proven woefully misplaced. On the most important issues affecting seniors, Democrats are on seniors’ side.
Unfortunately, seniors have not always voted in their own interests. Voters over 65 went for Donald Trump by four to five points in the 2020 presidential election, despite Trump’s repeated attempts to break his 2016 campaign promise “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. A poll released in August showed Republicans with a 15-point lead over Democrats among seniors in the upcoming midterms. In fact, seniors as a voting bloc have favored the GOP in every midterm election since 2002.
Political analysts note that seniors have gravitated toward Republicans because of cultural issues, rather than voting in their best economic interests. That’s a raw deal for older voters, says former Fox News commentator Juan Williams: “Republicans did not reward those voters with backing for social safety net programs for seniors – Social Security and Medicare. And they are not backing legislation to cut the cost of prescription drugs.”
With tens of millions of older Americans relying on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other safety net programs, seniors cannot afford to unconditionally support the party of Ron Johnson, Rick Scott, or Arizona’s Blake Masters. It’s important that older voters know where their candidates truly stand on these vital programs. Seniors should attend town halls with their elected representatives, consume news from credible sources, assess candidates’ actual positions, and cast their ballots wisely. They also can consult our Voters Guide, which rates members of Congress according to their votes on these crucial issues.
Will voters allow the reversal of decades of progress for seniors, the disabled, children and other Americans at risk? Or will we continue to build on the foundation that previous generations put in place to create a more just and equitable society that looks out for its most vulnerable citizens? Seniors, more than any other voting bloc, have the power to answer that question this November—and are among the voters with the most to win or lose.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.