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Of Entitlements and the 2012 Election
posted 01.15.2013

By Nancy J. Altman and Eric Kingson

The 2012 election should have strengthened the hand of those working to maintain the critical protections of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The open question is whether elected officials will, in its aftermath, refrain from voting for potentially devastating cuts to these programs.

Democrats had sought to draw a strong distinction between their stance and that of Republicans by highlighting and forcefully opposing Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare. Republicans had made clear their intent to radically change and diminish Medicare protections, with near unanimous partisan votes supporting the “Ryan Budget” in both the House and the Senate.

In turn, Republicans had sought to paint Democrats as failing to acknowledge that Medicare, along with Social Security, needed to be restructured so that the programs would be there for future generations. Moreover, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Ryan erroneously charged that the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) harmed older adults by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicare, a strategy that had worked well for Republican candidates in 2010.

Blurry Distinctions between Sides

Muddying the Democratic Medicare message, President Barack Obama and the Democrats, as a political party, did not take a strong stand on Social Security. “We reject approaches that insist that cutting benefits is the only answer,” the Democrat’s platform tepidly stated. The distinctions between the two parties were further blurred when, in the first debate against Romney, President Obama surprised many of his supporters by asserting that his opponent’s position and his were similar on the issue—despite Romney’s embrace of privatization.

Notwithstanding the failure of the president to draw a sharp distinction on Social Security, other winning candidates did. In close elections, Democratic candidates won when they strongly embraced these vital programs. And in similarly close races, candidates lost when they embraced comprehensive deficit pack-ages, which included large cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Although Republicans sought to claim that the election did not deliver a mandate because they retained control of the House of Representatives, the election in general represented a big win for Democrats and progressives. Democrats added to their Senate majority, replacing more moderate senators with more liberal ones—including the nation’s first openly gay senator and the most female senators in U.S. history. Consequently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose support for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid systems has been strong, is better positioned to protect these vital programs.

Entitlement Supporters Are Big Winners

Organized labor emerged from the election a winner, also a good sign for entitlement programs. Many Democratic candidates would have lost without the ground game of labor; many claim the president won in Ohio thanks to union members. During the election, the AFL-CIO came out strongly against all cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, highlighting this issue to all affiliated unions.

Women, Hispanics, African Americans and young people all figured prominently in the Democratic win—and all would be hurt disproportionately by cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Nevertheless, as this article goes to press, the nation faces a year-end perfect storm of automatic tax increases and cuts in government spending, which experts project would throw the economy into recession if enacted—the so-called fiscal cliff. Some Democrats, including the president, seem open to trading away the protections of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to get bipartisan support for a deficit package. Groups representing elders, women, working families, people with disabilities and many others oppose such a deal. Time will tell what will happen.

With the election results in and with both political parties wanting to increase their share of Hispanic voters and other “rising constituencies,” politicians would do well to refuse to impose cuts to these programs, because the benefits are vitally important to these constituencies and will be more so in the future. And they would do well to focus on the nation’s looming retirement income crisis, where a large majority of working Americans will reach old age without the ability to maintain their living standards. That would not only be winning politics, but the best policy as well.

Americans know, even if their leaders appear not to, that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are solutions, not problems. Indeed, Social Security does not add a penny to the nation’s debt and is conservatively financed and prudently managed. Medicare, despite covering those with the highest health costs on average—older adults and people with disabilities—has lower per person administrative costs than private sector insurance. Medicaid is virtually the nation’s only important financing source of long-term care.

Previous generations of politicians and working Americans built these institutions to protect individuals and their families against loss of earnings in times of disability, illness, death or retirement. They built them well as systems that underwrite economic security and as ongoing programs that give expression to widely held values—responsibility to care for our parents, children, spouses, neighbors and ourselves; hard work; and belief in the dignity of every person. As the budgetary debate went forward in the lame duck session, and continues on in 2013, the public and their representatives should keep in mind that it is now our turn to craft a legacy for the generations that follow


Nancy J. Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), and Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University, New York, are founding co-directors of Social Security Works and co-chair the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, both in Washington, D.C. Kingson is a member of the Aging Today Editorial Advisory Committee. The authors served as staff for the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform. They can be contacted at naltman@socialsecurity-works.org and  rkingso@syr.edu.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.


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