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Republicans are betraying the baby boomers as they hit old age

Biden's infrastructure plan would invest $400 billion in elder care. The GOP hates it.
Photo illustration: An elderly hand reaches out to an elephant trunk.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

It’s well known by now that older Americans are more likely to turn out to vote in elections. It’s made them a crucial demographic to target for pandering over the years. And in the next few election cycles, the baby boomer generation is set to fill that niche — a shift that is currently poised to benefit the Republican Party.

That makes it particularly odd in my eyes that as members of their base age and find themselves unsure about who will care for them in their later years, Republicans in Congress are casting boomers to the side in their time of need in favor of making President Joe Biden look bad.

Republicans have spent recent weeks attacking Biden’s infrastructure plan for spending too much money on items that don’t fit their narrow “roads and bridges” definition of infrastructure. In response, last week Senate Republicans outlined their own infrastructure plan. The price tag for this pared down proposal was only $568 billion, less than a quarter of Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan.

Among the items on the chopping block is $400 billion in funding for in-home care for elder Americans and people with disabilities over the next eight years. It’s up to Congress to provide details, but Biden’s pitch claimed that the money will “help hundreds of thousands of Americans finally obtain the long-term services and support they need, while creating new jobs and offering caregiving workers a long-overdue raise, stronger benefits, and an opportunity to organize or join a union and collectively bargain.”

As things stand, the U.S. is facing a shortage of workers to care for a quickly aging population — and those workers currently in the field are severely underpaid for their efforts.

“Caregivers, including nursing assistants and home health and personal care aides, earn $12 an hour, on average,” NPR reported on April 9, adding that most of them are women of color and one-third of caregivers who work for agencies don’t get health insurance from their jobs.

Most of those aides are employed through agencies that get reimbursed through Medicaid for the hours they work at their clients’ homes — but those services vary widely between states, which set Medicaid enrollment rates.

According to The New York Times, “Agencies consistently report labor shortages, which is perhaps unsurprising given the low pay. Raising wages may be essential to meet the booming demand. The Labor Department estimates that these occupations will require 1.6 million additional workers over 10 years.”

Even those older Americans who are eligible for Medicare aren’t covered for most long-term care. Instead, it only provides home-based care for people who are literally unable to leave their homes, and even then, it doesn’t pay for 24-hour care or even personal aides like those reimbursed under Medicaid.

It’s clearly a problem that needs a solution, ­and yet it’s been a constant punching bag for Republicans. Elder care was even one of the line items in a much-maligned tweet thread from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., listing all of the items that didn’t count as “infrastructure” in the senator’s eyes.

The suggested $400 billion investment is almost as much as the total GOP starting bid, so it’s easy to see why it would be the first to be excised as a cost-saving measure. But in going for what seems like low-hanging fruit, Republicans are committing a remarkable own goal.

First of all, it’s a popular proposal. A recent Vox/Data for Progress poll found that 73 percent of likely voters were in favor of boosting access and quality of home-based care. That includes 55 percent of Republicans surveyed. So add that to the growing pile of issues where Republican lawmakers disagree with their party’s voters.

More pressingly, now is the time to invest even more than Biden is proposing. By 2030, the United States is expected to have 74 million people over the age of 65, as the youngest baby boomers cross over into Medicare eligibility. The financial strain of taking care of that many people is part of why long-term care isn’t part of Medicare in the first place.

Compounding the problem is that the boomers’ children, younger generations like Generation X and my fellow millennials, aren’t well positioned to be the lifeline our parents will need. For one, shrinking family sizes has led to a dearth of potential family caregivers just as boomers will hit 65. AARP found that in 2010, the potential caregiver ratio hit its peak with more than seven potential caregivers for every person over the age of 80. By 2030, that number will drop to 4 to 1, before hitting 3 to 1 in 2050.

That’s not to mention the financial position millennials still find themselves in. We still earn 20 percent less than our parents did at our age, the think tank New America found in 2019. And while inheritances may change the wealth gap in the near future, that doesn’t help with providing for boomers while they’re still alive.

Even those who aren’t paid for taking care of their elders still incur a cost to the economy. The 34.2 million people taking care of people 50 and older provide an “estimated $500 billion worth of free care annually—three times Medicaid’s professional long-term care spending,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018. If boomers can’t count on that unpaid care, then who does the Republican Party think will be providing the assistance their voting base needs in the coming years?

The lack of self-interest here from the GOP is stunning — especially when you stop to consider that most senior politicians are themselves baby boomers. Given the GOP’s dependence on older voters, Republicans shouldn’t be dismissing Biden’s plan. They should be leading the charge themselves and wondering why there isn’t even more of an investment in taking care of boomers in their pending dotage.