Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro traveled to Scranton recently to make a big announcement about older Pennsylvanians – the development of a 10-year “Master Plan” to guide the Commonwealth’s thinking and actions regarding the impact of a growing senior population.
Shapiro’s declaration touched on key issues impacting seniors in Pennsylvania. Long-term living topped the list, but adequate and affordable housing, services provided by Area Agencies on Aging, and accommodations for disabled individuals were also highlighted.
The governor touted this initiative as a new approach to the concerns of older Pennsylvanians. That claim brushes over the fact the Commonwealth has a 5-year State Plan on Aging, mandated by the federal Older Americans Act.
But the State Plan on Aging has always seemed like a bureaucratic exercise instead of a true blueprint for how Pennsylvania will address the needs of older adults. Can this Master Plan be different?
An encouraging sign is Shapiro’s commitment to make this a true, administration-wide plan. The documents that accompanied the announcement of the initiative identified virtually every state agency as a stakeholder in the process. This reflects the reality that a quarter of the Commonwealth’s population will be older adults by the end of the 10-year period, which has implications far beyond the health care needs of this age group.
For instance, the state Department of Transportation must evaluate how an aging population will change our transportation system. Do we need a refined system for determining if older people should continue to drive? Can we make roads more accommodating for older drivers? How can improved public transportation or self-driving vehicles factor into this?
Education is another area where an older population offers unique opportunities. Pennsylvania’s institutions of higher education can turn their attention to research regarding aging. Whether it is innovative studies of conditions such as dementia, research about the economic impact of an older population, or integrating seniors into the campus community, the Commonwealth’s colleges and universities can become leaders in adapting their focus to the reality of the changing population.
There is another aspect to the intersection of education and Pennsylvania’s older population however, and it is the age-old issue of how to fund public education. It was disheartening, but not surprising, to note many of the initial comments on social media to the governor’s announcement focused on eliminating property taxes.
The burden of property taxes on those who are struggling to remain in their homes while relying on Social Security and minimal savings should not be dismissed lightly.
But too many of the complaints about high property tax rates come from older individuals who are already benefiting from Pennsylvania’s income tax system, which does not tax pension income. These individuals either do not recognize the importance of a quality public education system to every Pennsylvanian or believe “others” should shoulder the cost of it.
This points to a problem which must be addressed by the Master Plan – the growing wealth disparity in the Commonwealth, which may be more dramatic in the older population than in younger generations. As the older population grows, Pennsylvania simply cannot provide the services needed by all residents without fair contributions from those who have the resources to do so, regardless of age.
How to accomplish this with Pennsylvania’s regressive tax system? One of the Shapiro Administration’s first proposals under the Master Plan is a good start.
The Property Tax/Rent Rebate program, funded by the state lottery, currently provides some tax relief to older Pennsylvanians who meet certain income limits. The governor’s proposal, which passed the state House overwhelmingly on June 5, increases both the amount of the rebate and the maximum income for eligibility.
Approaching property tax relief in this way accomplishes numerous goals. It targets relief toward those who need it the most, and it increases the amount of relief to make it meaningful. It does not take funding away from public education. And it works around the prohibition on the establishment of a progressive tax system by creating an exemption to taxation for lower income individuals.
Expansion of the property tax/rent rebate program is a small, but significant, start to the development of a Master Plan for older Pennsylvanians.
Implementing ideas that will amount to more than just words in a document will not happen easily. It can only occur if both elected officials and Pennsylvanians of all ages recognize the realities of an older population require everyone to share in the costs and opportunities of this inevitable demographic change.
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