Commentary: The politics of aging, 2024 edition

Older voters may be set to reassert themselves at the voting booth, as they struggle with the dramatic increase in costs for food and other necessities.

October 26, 2023 6:00 am

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One of the age-old axioms in American politics is older voters decide elections because they vote in higher numbers than younger voters. It is also assumed older voters tend to favor more conservative candidates, reflecting their changing values as they age.

Our most recent elections have called these beliefs into question.  Older voters were almost evenly divided in their political party preferences in 2018 and 2020 before slightly favoring Republicans in 2022. The largest factor in determining election results since 2018 has been the varied turnout among younger voters, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

But older voters may be set to reassert themselves in 2024 because, in a country which seems hopelessly divided along partisan lines, an issue not necessarily heading the list for squabbling politicians is top of mind of many seniors. That issue? The dramatic increase in the cost of food and other necessities and the resulting impact on those with relatively fixed incomes.

“Relatively” fixed incomes is an important notation, because those who get Social Security benefits do get raises. The Social Security Administration recently announced Social Security recipients would receive a 3.2% cost-of-living increase (COLA) beginning in 2024. This is on top of an 8.7% increase in Social Security benefits in 2023. But with the average benefit set to increase by just slightly over $50 a month in 2024 a figure partially offset by a $9.80 a month increase in Medicare Part B premiums the Social Security COLA is an abstract thing to many of those receiving the monthly payment, especially in the era of direct deposits.

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What isn’t abstract is the increase in the cost of basic food families purchase on a regular basis. Hamburger ($3.89/lb. in January 2020, $5.08/lb. in August 2023 ) and bread ($1.30 for a loaf of white bread in 2019, $1.97 in 2023 ) are only two examples of how prices for common items have jumped.

People of all ages are impacted by higher prices. But those in their retirement years, particularly those who lack a pension, often feel the hit more acutely. They cannot take advantage of the job market to demand higher wages or look for new positions. And the four out of 10 retirees who rely on Social Security for at least 50% of their income know the annual cost-of-living increases are not keeping up with the cost of their purchases.

Some economists have pointed out inflation is rapidly falling from its peak levels and the situation has been stabilized. And as far as its impact on the overall economy, they are correct. But the price increases that occurred at inflation’s peak have not been reversed and the perception of older Americans on relatively fixed incomes is they are worse off than they were in 2019.

This is the group that votes in higher numbers than any other part of the American electorate. And their votes are likely to reflect their unhappiness with the impact of inflation on their lives. The question is who will they blame?

The conventional wisdom is those holding office will suffer the wrath of disgruntled voters. This should mean trouble for President Biden and his poll numbers reflect his unpopularity. But if his opponent in the 2024 election is Donald Trump, will voters upset at high prices pause to consider the true reasons they are paying more at the grocery store?

It was the Trump Administration that bungled the United States response to the COVID-19 pandemic which set in motion the economic problems eventually resulting in high inflation. And It was the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress which promoted tax cuts for the wealthy and a lax regulatory framework enabling the wealth gap to grow and businesses to take advantage of the economic mess to increase prices and profits at the same time.

The poster child for the true causes of inflation is the Pepsi Company, which reported record profits in the 2022-23 timeframe while selling fewer products. How did Pepsi do it? By increasing prices 15% in the past year, far above the increase in the costs to produce its products.

If the Biden Administration is to be blamed for anything regarding inflation it should be for failing to rein in the greed of corporations taking advantage of the fallout from a pandemic to make their wealthy executives and shareholders even richer.

But will older voters see it that way? Or will they fall back to a blame-the-incumbent mentality for the higher prices they are paying? It would be a tragedy if anger about the cost of a 12 pack of soda pop led to the election of a would-be authoritarian who is bound and determined to end our democratic system of government.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.