President-elect Joe Biden recently celebrated his 78th birthday. He’ll be the oldest-ever American president when he’s sworn into office in January. But what will his administration actually do for older adults? Biden has a fairly favorable agenda for older adults, but some worry whether the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession will hamper those efforts.
Biden’s age was a common topic during his presidential campaign. During the Democratic primary debate in October 2019, CNN’s Erin Burnett noted that former President Jimmy Carter had said a month earlier he could not have handled the presidency at 80 years old, and asked Biden, who will turn 80 during his first-term, why he felt he could.
“Because I’ve watched it, I know what the job is, I’ve been engaged,” Biden answered. “Look, one of the reasons I’m running is because of my age and my experience.”
And it’s possible Biden’s age and experience, in a moment of national crisis, ended up helping him at the polls, according to Dr. Marian Deutschman. She’s a retired Buffalo State College communication professor who studied long-term care, and a board member of the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara.
“For those people who voted for Biden, they were looking for that calming influence, they were looking for the truth and the trust,” she said.
However, Deutschman added that old age doesn’t automatically give a politician a calming influence. She noted that President Donald Trump is 74.
“I don't see him as a grandfather figure that is a calming influence,” she said. “So age by itself is not the answer.”
And Biden’s age by itself doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about his policies toward older adults.
There’s plenty of older politicians who don’t govern in the interest of their fellow older Americans, said Dr. Jacob Neiheisel, a University at Buffalo political science professor. So if you want to know how any politician — old or young — will govern, he said, you’re better off just looking at their party platform.
“Joe Biden is the leader of the Democratic Party. The leader of the Democratic Party for quite some time has been fairly insistent upon doing things like protecting Social Security, expanding access to health care,” Neiheisel said. “And insofar as those are policy areas that older Americans are interested in, I think that there's certainly something in a Joe Biden win for them in policy terms.”
For those reasons, some advocates for older adults are cautiously optimistic about a Biden administration. One of them is Karen Nicholson, CEO of the Center for Elder Law and Justice (CELJ), a Buffalo nonprofit legal agency for older adults, many of whom are low-income.
“I'm looking forward to seeing an executive budget that doesn't slash Medicare and Medicaid and Meals on Wheels and HEAP and all those programs that my clients rely on,” said Nicholson, referring to Trump Administration budget proposals over the last four years that often proposed cuts to those programs. “A lot of that didn’t pass, but it causes a lot of worry for my clients.”
While unsure whether it will be enough, Nicholson also appreciates that Biden at least has a plan for Social Security, often considered the third rail of American politics. Biden campaigned on raising taxes on people making over $400,000 a year in order to preserve the fund and increase benefits for older retirees and retired public employees, as well as reduce cuts for widows and widowers.
The trustees of the Social Security fund estimate it will run out of its cash reserves by 2035.
“I think it's great that it seems that Joe Biden's team is conscious of it and aware of it and starting to put forth some proposals,” Nicholson said, “but I think it's going to take sort of both sides of the aisles to make those hard decisions have to be made.”
CELJ also represents nursing home residents, who’ve been decimated by COVID-19. About 40% of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes, according to a New York Times database.
The Trump administration rolled back several Obama-era regulations — like requiring an infection control specialist in nursing homes — that Biden has promised to return and expand.
But Biden is also promising to help people stay out of nursing homes all together, like by giving tax credits to family caregivers and expanding Medicaid to cover more home-based care.
“So that people could stay home, rather than go into what are often called petri dishes where these infections just spread continually,” said a member of CELJ’s board, Ann Monroe.
However, it hasn’t been all high grades for Biden when it comes to older adults.
Some have questioned why he didn’t appoint any aging experts to his COVID-19 task force. And, with the pandemic raging and the economy in free fall, some worry whether older adults will once again be put on the backburner. Although spending money on children and young people is often considered an investment, spending on older adults is often just seen as a burden.
“When there are such social trade-offs, older people lose out,” Monroe said. “A child care subsidy, or increased retirement? Our society does not see those as equitable things. We are much more expendable in that way, when it comes to those tough decisions. So that worries me.
“And so I think it's really important that we advocate for older people as much as we possibly can to keep them on the radar screen.”
For similar reasons, Deutschman said she foresees only moderate change in a Biden presidency.
“I think one would look at Joe Biden in terms of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, 401K’s, long-term care, in terms of moderation and incremental change, not a major change,” she said.
Biden is set to be inaugurated Jan. 20.