Biden explicitly referenced a proposal by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would force Congress to re-pass all legislation every five years — meaning funding for everything would disappear unless backed by the legislature again. But the president may also have been referring to other rumblings from Republican politicians about possible attacks on the programs. The Washington Post reported on it last month; HuffPost spoke to a leading Republican after the speech who admitted that changes to the programs may be needed.
But at that point, Biden and the Republicans finally ended up in the same spot. One of the relatively few moments of bipartisan applause focused on the agreement that protecting Social Security and Medicare should be a central concern of the federal government.
There is a very good reason why they ended up here. The US population is aging at an unprecedented rate, which means that the number of people who depend on these programs is skyrocketing. And as older Americans vote more, very few elected officials want to officially advocate for cuts.
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Over the course of the speech, Biden mentioned seniors (or the elderly) nine times, the most the group has been mentioned in any state of the Union in the past 40 years. He also mentioned Medicare and Social Security more often than previous presidents, though that was due in part to his back-and-forth with the Republicans present.
The earlier points at which Medicare and Social Security discussions were common were during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In the late 1990s, Clinton warned of the danger that the Social Security Trust Fund could be spent by 2032, suggesting that the federal government’s sudden budget surplus will be largely spent on holding back the program. A few years later, Bush advocated reforms to both programs. He warned that Social Security would be broken by 2042 while pushing for changes, such as having younger workers divert savings into personal accounts.
Those were times when America was getting older, but not to the extent we see now. In 1990, there were about 31 million people aged 65 and over, a group that made up about 13 percent of the population. Ten years later, that group consisted of about 35 million people and almost the same percentage of the population.
Now there are more than 54 million people aged 65 and over, 16 percent of the population. And the Census Bureau expects those numbers to rise in the coming decades.
This is because of the baby boom. The rise in births that started in 1946 led to an increase in the number of 65 year olds starting in 2011. However, the boom peaked in the late 1950s, meaning we are seeing people being added to this age group at a rapid rate. In 2021, there were 4.2 million 63-year-olds in the United States, meaning an average of about 11,500 people will reach retirement age this year.
This has been the pattern since the beginning of the baby boom: a massive influx of people of a certain age, forcing the economy and politicians to accommodate them. (I’ll note here that I’ve written a book on the subject.) What we’re seeing now with the government trying to figure out how to respond to this surge in retirees is the same thing the country saw when the boomers entered the workforce or when they reached kindergarten age: things had to change to account for the scale of the generation.
There is another important aspect here. Traditionally, it has been Republican elected officials who have attempted to overhaul these programs. But older Americans are much more part of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Analysis of the voter file that The Post completed last month shows that over-65s make up a third of registered Republicans. Almost two-thirds of the party is 50 years or older. So potential threats to programs used by older Americans should be fewer palatable to the GOP at this point, not anymore.
It is likely that we are at the tip of the iceberg at this point. Partly due to the baby boom, the number of seniors is expected to continue to rise in the coming decades. The percentage of the population aged 65 and over will continue to rise. The need to stop programs benefiting older Americans will only grow.
Biden — America’s first Silent Generation president — is aware of this pattern. He knows that raising threats to Social Security and Medicare (no matter how threatening) is an effective way to unbalance Republicans; he probably also knows that the GOP base depends more on these programs than on himself. In other words, the aging baby boom has helped make Social Security more of a wedge issue for Democrats.
However, this short-term policy is less loaded than the long-term one. The increase in the number of working-age Americans as the baby boomers hit their twenties helped inflate Social Security Trust Funds — funds that are now being withdrawn as those workers age. It’s another in the long line of shocks to the system that the baby boom has aged. And it has yet to be determined how it will be resolved.