Recap of the Democratic Debate through a Senior Poverty Lens

We watched the recent Democratic debate with hopes of hearing some plans for addressing the growing crisis of poverty and inequality in our nation. Would any of the candidates really talk about poverty? Would would any of them even mention the 6.4 million senior citizens living in poverty?

We hoped that at least one would have the courage to make poverty a central issue. We hoped that all of them would recommend improving and protecting programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and SSI that work to protect people from the worst of poverty.

So what did they have to say? We were pleased that every candidate on the stage included a nod to poverty in his or her opening statement. Bernie Sanders charged that corporations are running the country, the middle class is dead, and we need to mobilize to take back the country from a handful of billionaires. Hillary Clinton led with a message about creating equal opportunity, building an economy that creates good paying jobs, equal pay for equal work, and paid family leave. Martin O’Malley noted that “deep economic injustice will tear our country apart”. He said the poor are getting poorer and incomes are stagnant. Lincoln Chaffee spoke of “closing the gap between the haves and have nots.” Jim Webb spoke of growing up poor and said his highest priority would be to make the country stronger for working people.

We listened for more specific ideas about how to address widening income inequality and growing poverty in this country, especially as these issues relate to older adults. Later in the debate, Senator Sanders provided specific recommendations for strengthening Social Security such as raising the cap on incomes subject to Social Security taxes – a key to ensuring the continued sustainability of the program.

Secretary Clinton endorsed increasing Social Security benefits, specifically for the poorest people and women who need it most, but notably stopped short of calling for Social Security to be expanded.

At the close of the debate, candidates were asked to state what they felt were the biggest problems facing our nation. Only two candidates focused on economic issues in their remarks: Secretary Clinton noted how the recession had led to lost jobs and homes, and we’re still feeling the effects. She promised to raise incomes and get back to the “basic bargain” for the middle class saying that, “if you work hard and do your part, then you will get ahead and stay ahead.” Senator Sanders concluded that the biggest problem facing America is that we have more wealth and also more income inequality than any other country and no guaranteed health care or parental and medical leave for families.

We were happy to see virtually every candidate acknowledge the growing problem of income inequality during the Democratic debate. But all of our future Presidential debates (among both Democrats and Republicans) need to tackle more directly the urgent needs of low-income older adults. In an aging America we need to hear how candidates plan to strengthen and expand Social Security, SSI, Medicare and Medicaid; how they intend to address our growing long term care crisis; and how they will ensure that all of the seniors in our communities can age in dignity and with justice.

So what did you think? What would you like the candidates to talk about?

About Justice in Aging

Justice in Aging is a national non-profit legal advocacy organization that fights senior poverty through law. Formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center, since 1972 we’ve worked for access to affordable health care and economic security for older adults with limited resources, focusing especially on populations that have traditionally lacked legal protection such as women, people of color, LGBT individuals, and people with limited English proficiency.