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Candidates, voters must work together after election


By Sondra L. Shapiro

As the election season winds down, there are just two things left for voters to do: study up on the issues then hit the ballot box.

Sounds easy, so why do potential voters seem so frustrated or worse, ambivalent?

Probably because the candidates and incumbents are so busy trying to get into office or stay there, they haven’t gotten to know whom they are representing.

To start: Medicare and Social Security are erroneously labeled third rail issues — to touch them means suffering the wrath of older voters, a group that traditionally votes in higher numbers than other age groups.

It is true that entitlements are of great importance to older Americans; it is wrong to assume as individuals they are unwilling to hear the truth about what is needed to make these programs healthy. From recent surveys, it could actually hurt the candidates to be vague or sidestep the discussion. So it was refreshing to hear Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama providing some details about where they stand on both issues during the first presidential debate.Though it was dismaying to hear the misinformation each spewed regarding the other’s plans. This behavior just confuses people.

It is a fallacy that older people vote with only entitlements in mind. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that the economy is actually more important to them when voting than Medicare. Another poll by Associated Press-GfK shows seven in 10 seniors say taxes and the federal deficit are important to them.

AARP polls found that the economy and entitlement protection is of great importance to potential voters nearing or in retirement.

There is a sense of frustration over the increasing party polarization that has precluded action on entitlements, as well as other pressing issues.

According to the results of an AARP survey, the next president and Congress need to strengthen Social Security (91 percent) and Medicare (88 percent).  Respondents also overwhelmingly (91 percent) think that these issues are too big for either party to fix alone and require Republicans and Democrats to come together.

“There is disappointment in the candidates not doing what they said they are going to do,” said AARP National President Rob Romasco during a meeting at the offices of The Fifty Plus Advocate to discuss the results of the group’s national voter education initiative. “Candidates are missing an opportunity at their risk. Here is the voting public saying they are not happy with what you are giving us, so give us more. Listen to us. Be honest.”

Respondents to the survey think the candidates have not done a good job of explaining their plans on Social Security (67 percent) and Medicare (63 percent).

Perhaps when the economy was strong there was little incentive to bite the bullet to fix entitlements. But hard times mean Medicare and Social Security are critical lifelines.

The trust funds that support Social Security will run out of money in 2034. At that point, the program will collect only enough tax revenue each year to pay about 75 percent of benefits. The program ran a 4 percent deficit last year and according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, is facing deeper deficits in the next 10 years.

The Medicare Trust Fund for the program’s hospital insurance — Medicare Part A — will run out of money in 2024, according to the annual Medicare Trustee report, released in April. Part A covers inpatient hospital care, medical care in a nursing home, hospice care and some home health services.

The backdrop of this election season offers a golden opportunity for voters to learn where the candidates stand on solutions to these problems. Yet, too often, the airwaves are filled with meaningless sound bites that serve to confuse or scare voters.

To that end, AARP began a campaign to bring clarity to voters on the issues: The campaign included surveys to tap into the financial concerns of individuals age 50 and over, and a “national conversation” with older Americans regarding the future of Medicare and Social Security. A questionnaire was completed by nearly 14,000 Massachusetts residents regarding entitlements.

AARP also is offering online information that presents the pros and cons of the options currently being discussed for Medicare and Social Security. Experts from the Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation and National Academy of Social Insurance present the solutions in a simple–to-understand manner.

“The takeaway here is — you have to consider the full array of consequences to any of these solutions,” said Romasco. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘what are we willing to pay for?’ ”

According to the AARP survey, 59 percent fear the negative effects of the economic downturn on their retirement savings will force them to rely more heavily on Social Security and Medicare. The survey revealed that 72 percent of non-retired boomers believe they will probably be forced to delay retirement and 50 percent have little confidence that they will ever be able to retire; 65 percent have little confidence that they will have the means to live comfortably in retirement.

From the survey results, AARP compiled an Anxiety Index of 1,852 registered voters, including 1,331 ages 50 and older, that found the top economic worries included: inflation, taxes, the opportunity to eventually retire, financial security during retirement and the affordability of health care.

Regardless of where a voter stands philosophically, Paul Ryan hit the mark when he recently said, “You know, entitlement reform has unfortunately been made very partisan, by partisans. … And unfortunately it’s what we’ve come to expect because the politics of reforming entitlements has become very bitter. It’s very unfortunate because if we let politics get the best of us, these problems are gonna get out of our control.’’

Romasco said the anxiety about the future, and about retirement, is actually three times greater than the concern about holding on to a job today. It’s no wonder. Social changes are heaping on financial pressure for many who are assuming the financial responsibility of parent care, college educations or financially-strapped adult children. Economic woes mean smaller household incomes and savings
for retirement.

The question is, will information from AARP and other sources help individuals to better understand what’s at stake and make them care enough to vote? There’s still the frustration and ambivalence to overcome.

With the finger pointing and partisanship going on in Washington, little is getting accomplished. So Americans get frustrated and don’t vote. The AARP survey reported 47 percent said they want to be heard but they don’t think it’s going to make a difference.

Combine this frustration with the confusion, misinformation or intimidation over an issue and folks may prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than take the time to try to learn about something.

Romasco sees hope. When he stands at the door as the audience leaves after a “You’ve Earned a Say” event, people thank him and say they have learned something.

“People are so concerned about their future, they are taking the time to participate in the surveys AARP is offering,” said Vice President of Policy and Strategy Cheryl Matheis, who attended the meeting with the Fifty Plus Advocate. “They take the time to fill out the forms. And, we had a much larger response then we anticipated; we touched upon a nerve.”

An AARP spokesperson said they normally don’t do events during the summer, but this year they did and people attended, proof of how seriously this year’s voters are about understanding the issues and making themselves heard.

With information comes an understanding that the problems and solutions are more complicated than what can be conveyed on a bumper sticker or 30-second sound bite. Romasco said from audience feedback, people want the candidates to be honest, specific and show respect for voters. “The voters can handle the truth. This is not to scare people. Just present the facts,” he said.

Yet candidates are still hesitant of saying what they really believe for fear of alienating someone. To them it’s a numbers game and they need those votes. But, in the process, the people they are afraid to speak frankly to end up being underserved; they end up staying home on election day.

As far as stepping up to the plate and fulfilling promises once in office, President Bill Clinton said it best during his speech at the Democratic convention.

“When times are 
tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and
 uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world.  What works in the real world is cooperation.”

Ultimately, the voters and candidates are in a partnership. It is up to us voters to educate ourselves on the issues and to demand straight answers from the candidates. It is up to the candidates to give us credit for brains and to be forthcoming about where they stand on the issues. Then, once in office, to stick to their convictions.

To View the Pros and cons of the options for change to Medicare and Social Security online:

Sondra Shapiro is the publisher of Fifty Plus Life. She can be reached at Read more at Follow her at


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