Pennsylvania is about to be hit by a gray tidal wave of aging residents. We’re not ready for them

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By Ray Landis

Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders.

Other than their status as leading presidential candidates in the 2020 election, what do they all have in common?  They are all in their 70s and are representative of the fastest growing segment of the population of the United States. Much of the attention of elected officials, advertisers, the media, and public policy is on a younger generation, but the demographic reality of Pennsylvania and the country as a whole is we’re growing older.

The Pennsylvania State Data Center estimates that, by 2025, 25 percent of all residents of the Commonwealth will be aged 65 and older.

We don’t focus on the impact of this upcoming change in Pennsylvania. Elected officials highlight the Pennsylvania Lottery, the only state lottery in the nation that utilizes all its revenues for programs benefitting older residents — as every television commercial featuring Gus the Groundhog will be sure to remind you.

But even a lottery that continues to set records in sales every year can’t keep up with the growth in the population of older Pennsylvanians.

Expenses for long-term services and supports for the elderly is the biggest cost driver of the Medicaid program in the Commonwealth.

Shortages of workers who provide direct care services for older Pennsylvanians threaten the quality of home care and care in nursing homes and other facilities.

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Increasing property tax rates and health care costs, particularly those of prescription drugs, force seniors and their families to make difficult choices about where they live and how they can care for themselves and their loved ones.

On the other hand, in some ways Pennsylvania treats its older population with kid gloves. Retirement income isn’t taxed in the Commonwealth, which means those receiving Social Security payments or pensions don’t need to worry about giving 3.07 percent of their earnings to the state.

The exclusive use of state Lottery dollars for programs benefitting the elderly means many older Pennsylvanians can use public transportation free of charge, and receive assistance with prescription drug costs, property taxes, and home care if they meet the income limits for these programs, which are much more generous than Medicaid (and don’t count assets).

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And retirees from outside the Commonwealth, particularly New York and New Jersey, flock to Pennsylvania to escape high tax rates in their native states.

Older Pennsylvanians can have it pretty good in the Keystone State – if they have financial resources stashed away from their working years.

If they don’t, however, state government must step in. A changing older population, saddled with debts from credit cards, student loans, and raising children and not having access to defined-benefit pensions means more people won’t have retirement savings and won’t have the resources to address a health crisis or a need for long-term services and supports.

How Pennsylvania addresses these new demographic realities is a public policy issue that deserves more attention.

It’s not a new issue for the Commonwealth – we encountered a growing older population in the last decades of the 20th Century. That was when our elected leaders established the Pennsylvania Lottery and chose to funnel its revenues to programs to help seniors.

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That happened first with first through property tax relief, which was followed by transportation assistance; then, in the days before the Medicare prescription drug program was approved by Congress, through the creation of our pharmaceutical assistance program, PACE, and finally through a home care assistance program, OPTIONS, run by local Area Agencies on Aging.

Still, what we have now is not going to be enough for the future.

Pennsylvania’s elected officials must deal with the growing costs associated with an older population – now.

The Commonwealth has rested on its laurels from the last time we seriously addressed a new demographic reality, but the time has come to face the challenges and grasp the opportunities an aging population presents.

A combination of government resources, academic attention, and private sector innovation is going to be needed to ensure that our growing older population is not further split into the “haves” who enjoy an even higher standard of living in retirement, and the “have nots” who continue to work into their 70s and even 80s just to afford food and a place to live. They’ll end up with inadequate long-term services and supports when they can no longer care for themselves.

We cannot afford to wait until the crisis is upon us to address this critical issue.

Ray Landis is the former advocacy manager for the AARP of Pennsylvania. His work will appear periodically on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.