Each Saturday, from now until the Nov. 3 election, The Sun...

CAMPAIGN ISSUE: THE ELDERLY

October 10, 1992|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | Gilbert Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

Each Saturday, from now until the Nov. 3 election, The Sun is examining the stands of the presidential nominees on major issues.

WHAT IS AT STAKE

The graying of America has made the nation's elderly voters a powerful electoral group. The over-65 constituency grew by 21 percent - more than twice the growth rate of the population at large - to 31 million between 1980 and 1990.

Two of the key questions on the minds of senior citizens this year, as put to the presidential candidates for a voter's video by the the American Association of Retired Persons, are:

Will there be comprehensive health reform to provide universal coverage, hold down costs, and give long-term care for the chronically sick and disabled?

Will security of personal income be enhanced by the continued build-up of the Social Security trust fund and an increase in the earning limit beyond which pensioners start to lose their benefits?

The answers the AARP received from Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton ` the video was made before Ross Perot entered the race - involved the politically requisite assurances on both issues, with differences focused on approach rather than commitment.

Social Security is perhaps the most politically sensitive of "gray" issues. The system is now basically in sound financial shape, according to the latest budget projection, although its cost has tripled in constant dollars from 1970 to a projected $303 billion for 1993. It will, however, face new stresses when the 80 million post-World War II baby-boomers start to reach pension age in about 20 years. For the moment its growth is generally in line with inflation, it is not a major budgetary problem, and all the candidates are committed to keeping it secure.

Medicare, the other crucial concern to the elderly, is a majocontributor to the federal deficit as both the numbers of eligible -- beneficiaries and the cost of treating them escalate. Medicare and other so-called entitlement programs, such as Medicaid, the federal-state program for the needy, will cost an estimated $766.9 billion in 1993, accounting for more than half the federal budget, twice their share of national spending in the 1960s.

There is general agreement among the candidates on the need to restrain the growth in entitlement costs. The differences are over how to do that.

WHAT THEY HAVE SAID:

George Bush

"I will not tamper with Social Security. I am firmly committed to protecting the integrity of our nation's Social Security system...Forty million Americans - all of whom have worked to make American what it is today - depend on their Social Security benefits for their livelihood. I will continue to work to ensure that people who contributed to the Social Security system receive the benefits they deserve."

Bill Clinton

"I want to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes for a change, and I do believe that people at very high levels of income should pay more for the government entitlements they get, including Medicare. But I don't want to hurt the middle class and the poor who are already poorer than they used to be, and paying more for health care....Already this year, the average elderly person is spending a higher percentage of their income on health care than they were back in 1965 before Medicare came in."

Ross Perot

"Our biggest problem is entitlement programs. These include Social Security, government retirement, Medicare and Medicaid....These programs are the heart of our social services. Millions of people depend on them every day, and they must be secure in the absolute knowledge these programs will continue...The threat I fear the most is that their runaway costs will outstrip the nation's ability to pay for them."

WHAT THEY HAVE DONE:

George Bush

Social Security beneficiaries have received full cost-of-living 2d adjustments during the Bush administration, and the average recipient's benefit has increase from $537 to $629 a month since he took office. The Bush 1992 budget increased the level of income 65-plus Social Security beneficiaries could earn without penalty from $10,200 to $11,400, $700 above projected wage inflation for the year, but the legislation stalled in congress. An estimated one million elderly workers would have benefited.

Bill Clinton

In Arkansas, either as attorney general or governor, Mr. Clintotook a series of age-related initiatives, including testifying before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission against age discrimination in federal programs. He involved the elderly on state boards and commissions. He created the ElderChoices Program in 1991 to allow seniors to use state nursing home funds for preferred long-term services such as home health care or adult day care. He removed the state sales tax on prescription drugs.

Ross Perot

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