Woodrow Wilson was president when my parents were born. Both were teenagers when Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935. They collected Social Security benefits to supplement their retirement income, as the law intended, after they turned 65.

Before Social Security, about half of Americans aged 65 and older lived in poverty, dependent upon their families, charity or public assistance to survive. Without Social Security, about half of older Americans today would have incomes below the poverty line, including more than 76,000 Maine seniors.

Social Security is the single most dependable source of income for the vast majority of American seniors. For two out of three older Americans today, Social Security provides more than half of their annual income; for one in three, it represents nearly all of their income.

Harry Truman was president when I was born. I was 13 years old when President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, on July 30, 1965 to sign the new law creating Medicare, in the presence of former President Truman, one of the law’s greatest supporters and also Medicare’s first enrollee in 1966.

Before Medicare, less than half of all Americans older than 65 had health insurance. Today, more than 95 percent have health coverage.

Medicare now covers more than 54 million Americans, including 43.5 million people aged 65 and older, and 8.8 million people with disabilities. More than 276,000 Mainers are enrolled in Medicare — more than one in five of all Maine residents.

More recently, the Affordable Care Act has greatly expanded coverage for Medicare enrollees, protected their traditional benefits and strengthened the system’s finances significantly. Because Medicare is not part of the ACA’s health insurance marketplace system, enrollees retain all of their previous benefits under either traditional Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan.

The ACA greatly expanded Medicare coverage for a wide variety of preventive services, including breast and colon cancer screenings with no coinsurance or deductible costs. The ACA also makes Medicare recipients eligible for a free annual wellness exam.

Because of the ACA improvements to Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, Maine has saved nearly $35 million on prescription drugs. More than 5,300 Maine residents will receive an average of $784 in drug cost assistance. By 2020, the ACA completely closes the so-called “doughnut hole” in Part D that has caused great expense for many beneficiaries who require numerous, costly prescription drugs.

And, contrary to what opponents of health care reform predicted, the report by Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund trustees released in late July found that because of the ACA, Medicare will remain solvent 13 years longer than before the enactment of health reform, paying 100 percent of the costs of the hospital insurance coverage that Medicare provides – through 2030.

Together, Social Security and Medicare have vastly improved the quality of life for older Americans. In 1966, 35 percent of Americans age 65 and older lived in poverty. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 10 percent. In 1966, life expectancy at birth for an American man was 66.7 years and 73.9 for a woman. In 2010, it was 76.3 for a man and 81.3 for a woman.

Neither Social Security nor Medicare is welfare. Americans contribute to both through automatic payroll deductions. My paychecks have reflected my deductions for more than 46 years, since my first payroll job as a movie theater usher the summer after I graduated from high school.

It’s not just seniors who have a stake in these programs. Millions of families have avoided poverty through Social Security survivors’ benefits. People with disabilities receive crucial income and health care support. Indeed, all Americans benefit when more of us avoid poverty and receive quality, affordable health care.

I turn 64 soon and already have begun to consider what I will need to do next year when I become eligible for Medicare and two years later when I reach my Social Security full retirement age. I want to make sure that I understand my rights and responsibilities under both programs and take the steps I need to ensure I am in full compliance and ready to secure the benefits I’ve earned.

As the 2016 campaign season shifts into high gear, it is critically important that we know where the candidates stand on Social Security, Medicare, health care reform (the ACA had its fifth anniversary in March), and other issues important to all Americans. Let’s ensure that our leaders do not undermine the existing protections, but build upon them to strengthen the health and economic security of all Americans.

Mark Sullivan is communications director at the Maine Center for Economic Policy in Augusta.

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