By Robert B. Hudson
To a degree hard to imagine half a century ago, older adults have become prominent players in American politics. From once having voted less than any other age group, now they vote more; from once having virtually no presence in Washington, now they are represented by nearly 100 organized interests; from once being recipients
of meager public benefits, now they receive the majority of the nation’s social expenditures; and from once voting much in line with younger voters, recently they have moved to the political right, emerging as a critical electoral component to Donald Trump’s election as president.
Yet elders are far from a homogenous demographic. They exhibit disparities in well-being along multiple dimensions, often exceeding those found among younger populations. These clashing political and population realities—formidable political standing mixed with widespread social and economic deprivation—have transformed and muddied our understanding of the place of older Americans in today’s politics. Are today’s elders dependent or advantaged? Do they constitute “the third rail of American politics” that no politician dares offend, or do they remain members of the “deserving poor,” whose political legitimacy is such that it obviates the need for political power? It is time to shed more light on these contrasting realities.
Today’s Elders Skew Conservative
Prior to the turn of the century, older Americans voted largely in line with younger populations (Binstock, 1997, 2009). Yet the current generation of elders has moved distinctively to the right. In 1992, older voters preferred Bill Clinton, with 54 percent of older adults saying they were Democrats or leaned Democratic, in contrast to 39 percent of older adults who said they were Republicans or leaned in that direction.
By 2013, those numbers had reversed, with 48 percent of older adults skewing Republican and 45 percent trending Democratic. As well, two big age-based crossovers occurred in the 2000s: in 2008, voters ages 18 to 29 and those ages 65 and older switched political positions, with the former now skewing Democratic and the latter Republican; in 2010, a majority of older voters reported now supporting Republicans over Democrats (Jones, 2014). Yet more striking, the 2010 off-year elections found the most remarkable age-break in decades, with older voters—having been led to believe that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would gut Medicare (Nagourney, 2009)—leading the charge that allowed Republicans to pick up sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives and capture its majority.
The role of older voters in the election of Donald Trump is clear. All voters ages 45 and older favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by eight points, 52 to 44, whereas voters younger than age 45 favored Clinton by fourteen points, 53 to 39. However, racial differences within these groups were stark. Overall, white voters favored Trump 57 to 37, whereas black voters favored Clinton 89 to 8. Whites ages 45 to 64 favored Trump 62 to 34, and adults ages 65 and older favored him by 58 to 39. Trump received 71 percent of the vote among non-college-educated whites ages 45 and older (Frey, 2016).
In recent state-level elections, older voters also proved more conservative. In the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race, voters ages 18 to 44 favored Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie by a margin of 64 to 34, whereas voters ages 45 and older tilted slightly to the Republican, 51 to 49. In the 2018 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, voters ages 18 to 45 evenly split between the Republican and Democratic candidates, those ages 46 to 64 favoring Democrat Conor Lamb 55 to 44, with those ages 65 and older favoring the Republican, Rick Saccone, 56 to 43 over the victorious Lamb. And, in the Alabama Senate race, voters ages 18 to 44 favored Democrat Doug Jones by a margin of 61 to 38, whereas voters ages 45 and older supported Republican Roy Moore, 54 to 44.
Elders are Central to “Make America Great Again”
The above phrase clearly harks back to a golden age when life was presumptively better for Americans. This presumption has energized much of the electorate, while being highly offensive and ahistorical to millions of others. Yet this message clearly resonated with a large majority of older whites. Observers have highlighted the role of nostalgia in the affections of older Americans. Frey (2016) has labeled their fondly looking backward as a “cultural generation gap,” a disconnect between “older primarily working class Whites and the increasingly diverse and globalized nation we are becoming.” In that hallowed narrative: for boys, there were “Ford families” and “Chevy families.” For girls, Barbie had only one skin color. “Made in Japan” meant shoddy workmanship. International cuisine was American chop suey and Chef Boyardee. In line with these sentiments, a 2016 PRRI survey (Cooper et al., 2016a) found 60 percent of respondents ages 18 to 29 felt things in recent years had changed for the better, whereas only 42 percent of those ages 65 and older believed that to be the case.
The Pew report, Millennials in Adulthood (2014), contrasts age-group support for different issues, revealing a pattern indirectly validating Frey’s construct, with older respondents registering the least support for mixed-race marriage, LGBT individuals raising children, legalizing marijuana, and sanctioning same-sex marriage. Two other Pew surveys clarify generational differences. The first (Pew Research Center, 2015) found younger respondents most supportive of scientific research, the educational system, and the environment, whereas older respondents favored reducing the influence of lobbyists,
restricting immigration, and funding roads
In the second survey (Pew Research Center, 2017a), younger adults most prioritized protecting the environment (16-point difference), global climate change (14-point difference), and addressing race relations (10-point difference). Older respondents prioritized strengthening the military (25-point difference), reducing lobbying influence (25-point difference), improving transportation (25-point difference), and controlling immigration (20-point difference).
Two other reports confirm the generationally troubling finding regarding immigration. When asked if immigrants are strengthening the country through their hard work and talents, 76 percent of Millennials, 60 percent of Gen Xers, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 41 percent of Silents answered in the affirmative (Jones, 2016). A PPRI poll (Cooper et al., 2016b) yielded similar results: where 68 percent of those ages 18 to 29 responded that immigrants coming to the United States strengthen the country, while only 19 percent believe them to be a threat to American values. In contrast, only 36 percent of those ages 65 and older believe that newcomers strengthen the country, whereas 44 percent believe immigrants to be a threat.
The nostalgia theme is clearly seen in Hochschild’s (2016) prize-winning ethnography, detailing the high degree to which middle-age and older Louisiana whites feel besieged by forces over which they seem to have no control—cultural marginalization, shaky economy, demographic decline—and by factions that they see as “jumping the line” and transforming the American narrative.
The Swamp Has Been Good to Older Voters
Older Americans are disproportionate beneficiaries of the nation’s largest social programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Why that is the case has been subject to numerous and competing narratives (Myles and Quadagno, 2002; Campbell, 2003; Hudson, 2016). Clearly, there has been at work a mix of older adults’ demonstrable needs, growing recognition of their political presence, and advocacy on their behalf.
Many policy benefits elders enjoy have emanated from “inside the Beltway”—aka the Swamp. Policy developments during the New Deal (Social Security) and Great Society (Medicare/Medicaid) periods owed much to Washington insiders such as Edwin Witte, John Commons, Wilber Cohen, and Arthur Flemming.
As Skocpol (1995) notes in the New Deal case, “ . . . the policy process through which Social Security was planned and drafted in the mid-1930s was strikingly closed.” In detailing the road to Medicare, Marmor (1970) highlighted the role of D.C. insiders, concluding, “Federal Security Agency strategists . . . were left with finding a socioeconomic group whose average member could be presumed to be in need. The aged passed this test easily . . . .”
As forcefully articulated by Campbell (2003), the expansion and effects of these programs have been central to the creation of what now constitutes the imposing electoral and interest group presence that older Americans and organizations working for them enjoy. In the case of Social Security, Campbell finds policy enactment and expenditures creating political self-identity and engagement among elders and organizational opportunities among their advocates. Closer to the ground, conservative think tanks are well aware of and condemn these independent effects of aging policy on subsequent politics. Tim Phillips of the Koch brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity speaks of the “incredible political power policies generate, building constituencies and powerful special interests whose jobs depend on it” (Peters, 2017). Thomas Miller (2015) of the American Enterprise Institute refers to these entitlements as a “demilitarized zone,” where one engages at one’s own peril.
The role of Beltway insiders was perhaps most forcefully articulated by Lowi (1969), whose “interest group liberalism” formulation found elected officials, lobbyists, and bureaucrats in a positive-sum symbiotic relationship centered, in order, on votes, programs, and jobs. The birth and evolution of the Older Americans Act and the so-called aging network comports to this understanding, with provider groups eager to play the role of middleman in the delivery of services funded through extant programs. As argued more broadly by Walker (1983), the creation and growth of aging-related advocacy groups and trade associations occurred largely in the wake of program developments rather than in advance of them. To the degree that “the Swamp” captures the (perhaps insidious) interplay of policy and politics, it is clearly the case that many, though far from all, older Americans have benefitted from its machinations.
Elders Supporting Trump—Not a Two-Way Street
It is difficult to discern President Trump’s position on any number of public policy issues, including those that are aging-related. He has said that Social Security and Medicare are off the table, but—whether he is aware of it or not—proposals coming out of the Oval Office make it appear that they are very much on the table. His FY 2018 budget called for significant cuts in Social Security’s Disability Insurance program, three-quarters of whose beneficiaries are older than age 50.
Congressional proposals that he supported to repeal the ACA would have eliminated the Medicare payroll surtax on high earners and would have eliminated the 3.8 percent net investment tax on capital gains and dividends, moves which would have accelerated the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund’s depletion by two years, from 2028 to 2026 (Van de Water, 2017). Republican proposals would also have imposed a so-called age tax on people ages 50 to 64 under the ACA (Hickey, 2017).
Several other aging-related programs have been on the cutting room floor, although Congress has resisted enacting many of them. The Administration’s budget would have reduced Medicaid enrollment by 14 million people over ten years, affecting many elders in need of long-term services and supports (Solomon and Schubel, 2017). Other such cuts proposed in the FY 2017 and 2018 budgets included a per capita funding formula capping federal Medicaid payments, severe cuts to the Community Services Block Grant, the Low Income Energy Assistance program, the Senior Community Service Employment program, health professions education and nursing training programs, and Amtrak’s long distance train service, disproportionately used by older adults (Gleckman, 2016; Ambrose, 2017).
When asked, older respondents have negative to neutral reaction to proposals such as these. Whether or not those concerns will guide them politically is uncertain, especially given the much larger contested environment centered on immigration, so-called identity politics, LGBT concerns, and the makeup of the Supreme Court, among other issues. The response of the ages 50 to 64 white population may prove most notable. This age bracket was strongest in its support of Trump, but a Quinnipiac poll found three-fifths of the same group opposed the ACA age tax, and a Washington Post-ABC News survey (Goldstein and Clement, 2017) reported three-quarters of older adults opposed the proposal to allow states to reduce the number of essential benefits under Medicaid.
These concerns may have clear consequences in the current political environment in that seventeen of twenty-two House Republicans who opposed Speaker Paul Ryan’s initial attempt to repeal the ACA in April 2017 represent districts where the median age is above the national average, and sixteen are in districts where the share of older adults exceeds the national average (Brownstein and Askarinam, 2017).
Older Voters Want Policy Benefits and Smaller Government
In voting behavior and political attitude, older white voters clearly skew in a conservative direction. But when attention turns to specific policy issues and existing programs, a far different picture appears. First recognition of this difference often is ascribed to Free and Cantril (1969) whose book, The Political Beliefs of Americans, captured the notion of individuals frequently being “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Years later, the Harris Poll highlighted this distinction by noting that respondents “hated the forest but liked the trees” (Harris Poll, 2011). This distinction is important in seeking to understand the relationship between older Americans, aging policy, and Donald Trump.
While roughly as many Americans express a preference for a bigger government providing more services as they do for a smaller government providing fewer services, they show little appetite for spending cuts in specific areas. The majority says it would maintain or increase spending in all fourteen of the program areas included in the survey (Pew, 2017a). Similarly, the Harris Poll (2011) found the most popular services—supported by more than 80 percent of respondents—to be crime-fighting and prevention, Medicare, Social Security, national parks, and defense. Unemployment benefits, aid to public schools, and Medicaid were supported by more than 70 percent of respondents, including 60 percent or more of Republicans. Smaller majorities supported food stamps and immigration. The only program not supported by a majority of the public was foreign aid.
A tension arises when respondents’ ages and particular programs are introduced. On the one hand, voters of all ages have long supported programs that disproportionately benefit older Americans. Responses to the General Social Survey found more than 90 percent of respondents saying either “too little” or “about right” was being spent on Social Security, with massive support across all age groups: ages 18 to 29, 86 percent; ages 30 to 49, 91 percent; ages 50 to 64, 94 percent; and ages 65 and older, 95 percent (Cook and Moskowitz, 2014).
Yet, older respondents do not appear to reciprocate when many non-aging-specific areas are in question. In a Pew study (2017b), adults younger than age 30 (57 percent) and between ages 30 and 49 (54 percent) say they would rather have a bigger government providing more services, with only a minority of adults ages 50 to 64 (38 percent) and ages 65 and older (40 percent) agreeing.
Are Today’s Elders Doing Well or Poorly?
While many of today’s elders look back fondly on mid-twentieth century life in light of contemporary demographic and economic developments, it seems increasingly likely that these Silents (born between 1930 and 1945) and early Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) will experience a more secure old age than the younger generations following them. If there is to be “demographic conflict,” it may be less about old versus young than about growing lifelong challenges that are confronting today’s late Baby Boomers (born 1956 to 1964) and Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1985).
Dannefer (2003) and Crystal (1982, 2018) have been leaders in raising and framing these issues. Crystal is first associated with what he has called “the two worlds of aging,” the investigation of cumulative advantage and disadvantage over the life course in which he finds—contrary to popular opinion—that economic inequality does not lessen in old age but continues to expand. His more recent work, however, centers on generational inequality, where individuals born at one point in time may experience more inequality at each point in the life course than did members of previous generations.
In these terms, it appears that today’s elders will fare better in old age than those who are now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Silents and early Baby Boomers grew up in a post–World War II environment marked by a manufacturing-centric economy, a period of rising wages, expanding social safety net programs, defined benefit pension plans, health plans with low deductibles, and an unprecedented rise in real estate values. As Crystal argues, late Baby Boomers are facing growing economic inequality, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and declining union power, while Gen Xers have been hard hit by the Great Recession of 2008–2010, falling real estate values, the continuing disappearance of defined benefit plans, and a sharp increase in economic inequality when compared to earlier generations.
Crystal coins another apt phrase, referring to these people born between 1956 and 1975 as “the hollowed-out generation.” Whatever problems Silent and early Baby Boomer elders are experiencing—and they are widespread—they seem likely to prove less severe than what late Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may face in old age. Crystal forecasts these individuals approaching retirement age accompanied by poor health status, morbidity, mortality, substance abuse, suicide rates, opioid addiction, and increasing age-specific death rates. In the case of Millennials approaching old age, the period they live through is likely to be marked by high levels of student debt, unaffordable housing, and heightened job insecurity.
Two Worlds: Dependent and Advantaged Elders
The seeming dissonance in older whites’ views of Donald Trump and his policy initiatives—endorsing his conservatism, but uncertain about some of his policy proposals—would appear to create a blurred political picture. Yet there emerges an unfortunate clarity. On the one hand, the Administration takes a harsh stance toward low-income and vulnerable people of all ages, while on the other, enacts tax breaks and eschews benefit cuts for those who are better off.
Thus, initiatives to reorganize the federal bureaucracy by moving the SNAP program into a reconstituted human services department, now with “welfare” in the title, tightening eligibility for public assistance programs, and scaling back Disability Insurance benefits further threaten the well-being of vulnerable adults of all ages.
In contrast, the recently enacted tax package generates average savings of $70 for the poorest 20 percent of Americans; $7,460 for the richest 20 percent; and $61,090 for the wealthiest 1 percent. Programmatically, the pledge not to touch the Old Age and Survivors components of Social Security speaks more to the political standing of middle-income elders than to their less-well-off peers. Together, these moves speak directly to and would exacerbate the so-called two worlds of aging identified by Crystal (2018), centered on the notion of cumulative advantage and disadvantage over time.
Invoking terms from a typology of political target populations (Hudson and Gonyea, 2014), we can speculate that the fate of disadvantaged or “dependent” elders (possessing positive social construction and only weak political power) will continue to suffer relative to the second grouping of “advantaged” older adults (possessing both positive social construction and high political power) as time progresses. Advantaged elders will fare well under prevailing political conditions, conveying an image of a life of hard work, earned benefits, and, one must add, being presumptively white, straight, and male.
Cutting Medicaid funding and tightening regulations will inevitably affect very old and low-income elders in need of long-term-care services. Work requirements for SNAP and proposed cuts to the DI program would severely impact highly vulnerable individuals in their 50s and 60s, ones who might be chronologically in the Third Age but who functionally certainly are not. Not at all unrelated, a major ideological shift likely to be seen in the make-up of the new Supreme Court seems probable to lead to a weakening of federal protections for people of color, members of the LGBT community, and very old women. These are the dependent elders.
Given a widening gap in well-being and political power, Hudson and Gonyea (2014) and Crystal (2018) fear a fracturing of the common political understanding there has long been of “the elderly.” While there has never been denial of the empirical heterogeneity of the old age population, the vibrancy of aging politics has always lain in older adults being understood normatively to be a singular and deserving constituency. Thus, in a third component of the target population formulation, it seems increasingly likely that older adults may be seen as contenders (negative social construction; high political power). It is this combination that has generated the age-directed ire of a host of commentators, including Kotlikoff and Burns (2004), Samuelson (2013), and Alstott (2016).
Crystal forecasts a continued weakening in the common stakes and social solidarity identity of elders. From a pre-1980 understanding that “you can’t do enough for the elderly” (dependent), perceptions gravitated toward “the elderly are the third rail of American politics” (advantaged), to what may increasingly be captured by epithets along the lines of “we haven’t prepared for the aging monster” (contender) (Samuelson, 2017). This political reconstruction of aging is of enormous importance, more so in an era assaulting the legitimacy of domestic social policy and promoting what Crystal terms as no less than a “plutocratic-friendly” agenda.
Robert B. Hudson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Social Welfare Policy Department at Boston University’s School of Social Work in Boston, Massachusetts.
This article is taken from the Winter 2019 Issue of Generations, which examines politics and aging. ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store.
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