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Both Presidential Candidates’ Reform Plans Lack Specificity, Creating a Problem for Seniors

Unfortunately for America’s seniors, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid reform have so far received little attention. That needs to change.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Both presidential candidates are back on the campaign trail now that the dust has settled from the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Unfortunately for America’s seniors, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid reform have so far received little attention. That needs to change. The sooner the candidates can outline their positions on the issue, the better.

Undoubtedly the presidential candidates will face this issue at some point on the campaign trail because Social Security provides half or more of total income to the majority of Americans over age 65, and Medicare/Medicaid provides coverage for more than 50 million seniors and people with disabilities.

This year, 169 million workers will pay Social Security payroll taxes, yet trustees warn that the fund may become insolvent in 2035 if reforms are not made. Although Social Security has serious fiscal problems, they are minor compared with Medicare’s funding problems.

Given the information released by both candidates so far, voters can already see there are stark differences between Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s philosophies on entitlements. Seniors better take notice. Their well-being is at stake.

Trump takes a populist position on entitlement reform in opposition to his Republican colleagues who favor privatizing Social Security, raising the retirement age and cutting benefits. Trump said he will save Social Security by creating more jobs, cutting taxes and stimulating the economy.

This will require him to engage with Congress and garner bipartisan cooperation to shore up support for a comprehensive tax reform plan that simplifies personal income tax, lowers the rate of corporate taxes, and eliminates the alternative minimum tax and inheritance tax, among others. This will be a hard sell to Democrats in Congress.

Trump also indicated that although he opposes cuts to Medicare, he strongly supports repealing the Affordable Care Act. Dismantling the law, he says, would help reduce the federal deficit and remove waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid. He points to a “pro-growth” agenda, the centerpiece of which is an expanded tax base, to make Social Security financially sound for all age groups and future generations.

However, the Affordable Care Act allows 39 million Medicare beneficiaries to receive preventive services with no cost-sharing, and 9.4 million people saved more than $15 billion in prescription drug expenses, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump has not mentioned providing current beneficiaries with replacement coverage.

Although much of Clinton’s agenda focuses on helping middle-class families prosper, her commitment to protecting Social Security is strong. She opposes reducing annual cost-of-living adjustments and any efforts to raise the retirement age to 70, similar to Trump.

She also wants to expand Medicare to reduce disparities in access to those who need services the most. This includes expanding insurance regulation of dramatic prescription drug price increases and opposing any attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But perhaps one of the biggest points of distinction defining the candidates is the position taken on expanding Social Security, which is a position favored by 61 percent of the American people, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Clinton believes expansion is necessary for the most vulnerable and for those who are treated unfairly by the current system. She focuses particularly on protecting the adequacy of Social Security benefits for women when a spouse dies.

Currently, widows take a deep cut in benefits, and those who provide caregiving responsibilities often have an uneven paid work history, thus affecting their lifetime Social Security contributions. Clinton intends to have higher earners pay more into the system, but she is noncommittal regarding how to do this.

It is unlikely that either candidate will endorse sweeping changes in Medicare and Social Security given the wide popularity of the programs. Both want to ensure that Social Security and Medicare provide adequate benefits to meet the needs of future retirees without creating an unrealistic and heavy financial burden on the present and future working-age population.

But changing these programs will have consequences for the well-being of all Americans. Both candidates will need to convince younger Americans that entitlements should be reformed. Both candidates should share their plans on how to make Social Security and Medicare financially sound now and for future generations. This issue is one that must be addressed.

Jacqueline Angel is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston ChronicleSherman Dennison Herald DemocratSan Antonio Express News and the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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