In the next ten years, 79 million Americans will become senior citizens. This is an astonishing statistic considering the fact that, a century ago, there were only 3.1 million seniors in the United States—one in 25 Americans. By 2020, one out of every six Americans will be elderly.
The fact is both Republicans and Democrats are growing old, and this unprecedented aging wave demands leadership from both parties.
America is faced with a moment of tremendous need. Along with the extraordinary increase in our country’s senior population are two critical challenges: an unfulfilled need for more home health workers to support our seniors in their aging process, and the preservation of our senior entitlement programs. The next president must address these issues, or risk the failure of our entire senior care system.
Over 90 percent of all Americans believe seniors should be supported as they grow old and be cared for in their own homes. To achieve this goal – and keep pace with our rapidly aging population – we need to add at least 1.6 million additional trained and qualified care workers to our economy by 2020.
Yet the home care workers we already have are underpaid and under-supported. Currently, the average hourly wage for a home health worker in America is just $10. And most of these home health aides are women of color and immigrants who, without good wages, paid sick leave, and other basic worker rights, cannot take care of their own families.
If we don’t fix this crumbling system now, it will only get worse as the baby boomer generation ages. This means improving working conditions for those providing care as well as ensuring we have enough care workers for our aging population. The training of new home care workers should begin immediately, or we will find ourselves unprepared to deal with what’s to come.
While providing better work supports and training to care workers is one part of the equation, the other involves preserving and even expanding our safety net for seniors.
Medicare and Social Security are two critical programs that naturally demand attention as our country ages. The presidential candidates have discussed reforming these entitlements, and some have even suggested largely privatizing parts of these vital programs on which our nation’s seniors rely.
A strong majority of voters across generations support preserving Medicare and Social Security in their current forms. Yet even achieving this teetering goal would not do enough to help the growing ranks of our nation’s seniors and those who care for them.
Mitt Romney has endorsed turning Medicare into a voucher system. This move could cost today’s 48-year-olds an additional $124,600 when they turn 65. And Paul Ryan was the author of a plan to hand the reigns of Social Security over to Wall Street.
President Barack Obama has suggested that entitlement programs for the elderly are not entirely sacrosanct in their current form under Democratic leadership, either. During the first presidential debate he discussed the need for minor tweaks to Social Security. The Affordable Care Act also contains changes to Medicare that will cut subsidies to insurance companies in order to keep the program solvent.
Our politicians have a choice: will they face the growing age wave with bold leadership and innovation, or will they kick the can down the road, degrading an elderly care system that is barely keeping pace with the current need? We need leaders who will craft caring pathways of aging for the baby boomer generation while creating good jobs for a growing workforce.
At the end of the day, the 79 million Americans turning 65 in the next ten years aren’t just senior citizens in need of strong Medicare, Social Security, and home care services. Those 79 million soon-to-be seniors are also voters. Sooner or later, politicians on both sides of the aisle will have no choice but to listen and respond.
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Ai-jen Poo is the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-director of Caring Across Generations.
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