I was not prepared for a social worker to suggest our family spend itself into poverty.
Last winter, after my father entered a hospitalization from which he would never emerge, my mother and I sat down with a social worker to talk about options for the long-term care we thought he might need. I’ll always remember the social worker patiently explaining to my mom that her best option to cover Dad’s care might be for our family to spend everything that we had until we were asset-poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. I remember thinking, “Is that how this works in America?”
It is a fact of life that we and the people we love grow older. With aging can come deep satisfaction and joy — the chance to slow down, travel, or play with a new grandchild. It can also bring hardship, as a worker frets whether she has sufficient savings to retire or a husband debates whether to move his spouse to a nursing home.
More and more Americans are confronting the challenges of aging, as shifting demographics intensify a crisis that Washington has neglected for years. As baby boomers age, there will soon be more older adults than children for the first time. By 2050, nearly one in five Iowans will be over 65. Americans are increasingly becoming eligible for Social Security, even as the Trump administration has tried to cut billions from the program.
I am determined to usher in a new era for older Americans, one that empowers them to retire and age with dignity, so that they and their families can see their golden years as a time of security and possibility.
In this new era, we will uphold the promise that every American should be able to maintain a decent standard of living when they retire. A key part of that means ensuring that the 22 million seniors on Medicare Advantage can choose to keep their plans, which is why I will offer Medicare For All Who Want It, in addition to making prescription drugs more affordable.
We’ll ask the most fortunate Americans to pay their fair share, to protect Social Security for the next generation and increase the minimum Social Security benefit. At the same time, 62 million Americans lack a workplace retirement account, and over a third of Iowans have less than $5,000 saved or invested for retirement. So we’ll create a public option 401(k) to ensure that workers can supplement their Social Security benefits if they choose. Under our plan, a typical American worker could retire with over $500,000 in that account.
I am committed to making long-term care more affordable, because no family should be faced with the dilemma my family encountered. So we will establish a new, universal long-term care insurance program called Long-Term Care America to provide eligible seniors $90 a day for as long as they need it. For Iowans, this would cut the cost of care by 39 percent for nursing facility services and 57 percent for assisted living services. We’ll also revitalize the private long-term care insurance market. Through these policies, the public and private sectors will work together to provide comprehensive long-term care insurance while strengthening the safety net for older people with lower incomes.
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Our plan also will improve access and quality of long-term care at home and in communities. We’ll mandate that Medicaid cover such care. And we’ll expand the CAPABLE program — which provides a nurse, home repair person, and occupational therapist to aging Americans — to make it easier to stay healthy and age at home.
We will honor and support our nation’s caregivers, who are primarily women and disproportionately people of color and immigrants. America will need nearly 8 million new care jobs by 2026, even as these high-turnover jobs involve long hours, low pay, and frequent abuse. So we’ll support Iowa’s 75,000 direct care workers by setting a $15 minimum wage, implementing new work standards, and expanding programs to train more caregivers and create ladders for advancement. And we’ll ensure these workers can unionize, because care jobs should be good jobs.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey once observed that “the moral test of government” is, in part, how we treat “those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly.” My administration will meet that moral test and ensure every aging American has respect, dignity, and belonging.
Pete Buttigieg is mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a Democratic candidate for president.