Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently launched “Latinos for Hillary” at a rally in San Antonio. She chose San Antonio because it is the birthplace of Julián Castro, whom she is thought to be considering as a potential running mate.
Make no mistake. The Latino vote is an important issue for all presidential candidates; 28 million Latinos will be eligible to vote by 2016, more than 11 percent of voters nationwide,
Politics aside, this month also coincides with National Hispanic Heritage Month. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the Hispanic population is growing almost five times as fast as the general population, making this the nation’s largest ethnic group. Latinos are a swiftly growing demographic group in the United States, representing 1 out of every 6 Americans.
But during the next four decades, the nation’s Hispanic population will double from 53.3 million to almost 130 million in 2060. Nearly 1 in 3 residents are expected to be Hispanic, accounting for 1 out of 4 Americans. For the first time in U.S. history, ethnic and minority groups become the majority population.
While on the campaign trail, Republicans, Democrats and tea party supporters alike will surely find this demographic shift provides a compelling opportunity to address a critical facet of the debate on entitlement reform. Given that most groups share the same need for security and inevitably come together to depend on one another, intergenerational equity in transfer programs such as Medicare and Social Security are touchstones of the debate.
A growing electorate of older and retired people juxtaposed against an increasingly minority, immigrant and non-English-speaking workforce will probably have an impact on the social contract between generations. Young workers and Hispanics at or near retirement age vote less frequently than the older and non-Hispanic whites during presidential election years and as a result lack the political empowerment to strengthen the programs.
Age-based conflicts are likely to lead to competition over limited resources, and those running for the highest government office will inevitably be forced to deal with the consequences of intergenerational policy and program choices.
Why? Because Social Security is a particularly important source of retirement income for Latino workers. Latinos are more likely than non-Latinos to work in lower wage jobs, and the progressive benefit structure of the Social Security system helps keep elderly and disabled minorities and their dependents out of poverty.
The lack of resources and their often compromised health means that Medicare is particularly important for the Latino population. Despite high rates of chronic conditions, Latinos on average live as long as non-Hispanic white Americans. Longer life spans are a mixed blessing, however. Increasing female labor force participation has reduced the Latino family’s capacity to provide all of the material and instrumental care that aging parents need.
This fact, in combination with their economic disadvantages, means that many older Latinos are particularly dependent on Medicare for protracted periods. But gaps in coverage remain. Medicare, for example, pays only 80 percent of hospital costs, and it does not cover long-term care. Part B includes a premium, which along with hospital costs can represent a major burden for low-income elders.
For the middle class, “Medigap” coverage, which is provided by an ex-employer or purchased privately, covers what Medicare will not pay. For older Hispanics who cannot afford a supplemental Medigap policy, Medicaid, the program for low-income children and older adults, pays those extra costs.
But the problem with the system is the lack of uniformity across states. Many states do not apply for waivers, and even when they do, there are waiting lists. This must change. There must be uniform standards across states.
As Latinos find it necessary to juggle work and children, can these traditions of family caring for older parents survive? Yes, but it will require concerted efforts by our elected officials across party lines as well as efforts by nongovernmental organizations.
We will need more political leadership than we have seen recently from Congress and the candidates for president because it is critical to Hispanics as they redefine the strengths and challenges of the new America.
Jacqueline L. Angel is a professor of sociology and public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book is “Latino in an Aging World,” (Rutledge) co-written by Ronald Angel.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
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