White House Conference on Aging: A recap

(Reuters) – When presidents call Americans together to talk about aging, major change is possible. The first White House Conference on Aging in 1961 played a midwife’s role in the birth of Medicare; the 1971 conference led to creation of the automatic cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, which has been in place since 1975.

This year’s conference, held on Monday, July 13, could have had a similar impact in a country facing the challenges of a rapidly aging population.

Unfortunately, the conference was hobbled by a limited budget – and a limited vision of the key issues that a progressive administration should be pursuing, but isn’t. The agenda overlooked too many important issues: rapid diversification of our older population, retirement inequality and assigning a bigger role to Social Security, and finding a way to protect pensions and Medicare. And a failure by Congress to fund the event forced a sharp downsizing, limiting the number of voices that were heard.

President Obama did unveil several laudable policies at the conference. For example, the Department of Labor will propose rules aimed at making it easier for states to set up automatic IRA plans like the one recently established by Illinois.

But so much was missing – the rising importance of ethnic, non-white and LGBT elders, and the pressing moral issue of inequality in longevity.

As usual, the administration’s positions on Social Security embraced generalities about “strengthening” the program without mentioning the boldest, smartest idea being advanced by the left flank of the President’s own party: expansion of benefits focused on low- and middle-class households. Finding ways to protect traditional pensions? Preserving Medicare as a defined benefit, and defending it against voucherization? Those also were  nowhere to be found.

Full disclosure: I was away on vacation for the actual conference, so can’t offer a report on how the day played out. Here’s the Reuters column I wrote a few days before the conference. And, I will be following up on a few of the topics discussed in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, here are links to some excellent reviews by Paul Kleyman and the folks at NextAvenue.org. The White House Storify stream on the WHCoA is here.




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