Social Security and Medicare have been hugely successful in cutting the poverty rate for retirees, but like most statistics, that tells only part of the story.

Yes, people are no longer abandoned when they stop working, and left to die of preventable diseases. But a growing number of elderly Americans are still financially insecure despite the social safety net. That means they can’t afford basic necessities like food, housing and medical care without relying on government programs or gifts.

About half of Maine seniors who live alone fit that description, and about a third of couples, according to the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, a study of elder finance that was released this year. That should be a concern for Mainers of all ages.

Maine, already the nation’s oldest state,  is expecting to see its elderly population explode over the next two decades. People over age 65 make up about 20 percent of the state’s population today, but it’s projected to make up 42 percent by 2036, according to the State Economist’s Office.

The cost of public assistance for retirees is currently $35 million a year, but it’s projected to reach $273 million a year in 2032, according to a University of Maine study. Nationally, the costs are expected to increase from $7.6 billion per year to $65 billion.

We are seeing the leading edge of a very predictable crisis brought on by decades of wage stagnation. With each passing year, more people are retiring without the security of a defined-benefit pension and are relying on their savings and home equity to augment Social Security. But as the financial crisis of 2007-08 showed, real estate and other investments can disappear in the blink of an eye, and even the people who are blessed with good timing are not able to put enough away while they are working to meet all their needs when the paychecks stop. One-third of baby boomers – Americans between the ages of 55 and 74 – have no retirement savings at all.


Widespread financial insecurity among people in old age is not the result of bad behavior or poor judgment on their parts. It’s a choice we have made as a society to favor tax cuts over social spending. Now the bill is coming due.

Some of the solutions are obvious. Social Security is funded with a payroll tax on the first $128,000 of wages. Anything over that amount or other kinds of income, like interest or dividends, is exempt. Eliminating those exclusions would go a long way toward meeting the needs of a growing elderly population.

And it’s not just low-income people who struggle with the cost of long-term care. We did not endorse last year’s Question 1, which would have created a universal long-term care benefit within the state, because the statewide ballot question lacked coordination with existing programs and accountability for its huge budget. But we agreed that it was the right problem for the state to take on.

People are living longer, healthier lives because the people who came before us made wise choices, creating Social Security and Medicare. Now it’s our turn to continue that work.

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