"Boomers have now crossed the line between thinking about Medicare and Social Security as an issue for their parents, to being worried about it for themselves," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution who did a broad analysis of available census data. "More so than their parents, boomers face increasing costs of medical care and the risk that government pensions will need to substitute for downturns in their 401k plans.
"Their interest in the viability of Medicare should be priority one for politicians seeking office, especially in aging regions of the country," he said.
The census numbers come amid spirited debate over federal spending cuts in the wake of ballooning government debt. The Republican-controlled House last month approved a plan that would replace Medicare with a government payment individuals would use to buy private insurance. The measure would affect only those younger than 55; people that age or higher would continue to be covered by the current Medicare system. For the younger group, health care would ultimately cost them more.
The GOP plan is partly a bet that the key voting bloc of older Americans will accept Medicare changes if they are not affected. So far, however, the heaviest resistance has come from older people who are opposed to cuts that will affect their children and grandchildren or that conceivably could be expanded later to include them. Americans 55 and older now represent about 32 percent of the voting-age population.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he will hold a vote on the House proposal, challenging Senate Republicans to take a position that could alienate older voters. In Maine, which has the nation's highest median age at 42, Republican Sen. Susan Collins already has come out against the GOP plan, and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe has voiced doubts, specifically citing the potential impact on the state's aging residents.
More than half the states — about 28 — saw population declines over the last decade in the under-45 age group. Those states are mostly in the Northeast and Midwest and include Massachusetts, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.
At the same time, 12 states primarily in the fast-growing South and West — including Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina — had increases of at least one-third in their 45-64 age group, which include mostly baby boomers. Those states' median ages were somewhat lower due to immigration of Hispanics, who are more likely to raise families, and movement of young adults into their states.
Nationally, the median age climbed to about 36.8 from 35.3 in 2000.
David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP, a group representing Americans 50 and older, mentioned the increasing focus on older voters as public debate shifts more to entitlement reform. When it comes to Medicare and Social Security, older Americans have stronger feelings about keeping programs fully intact than 30-year-olds who aren't thinking about retirement or who aren't very familiar with the programs, he said.
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