After several years of depleted coffers, some states across the country are reporting somewhat healthier budgets as the U.S. economy improves. There is no indication, however, that they are restoring cuts in programs for older Americans or that they are using these resources to meet new needs.
The trend runs counter to the nation’s rapidly aging population, which will put increasingly huge demands on housing, infrastructure and long-term care, Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president, said during a discussion among state policy experts she moderated at the recent 2012 American Society on Aging conference in Washington, D.C.
Here are four troubling trends the panel identified.
1. Fewer people will be able to remain in their homes — even though they’d like to. That’s because long-term care services that help older Americans age in their own homes are in fiscal peril. Fourteen states cut home- and community-based services last year, and 11 more are expected to make cuts this year.
2. Low-income people will receive fewer services. Services that states have the option of providing through Medicaid — dental, vision, therapies, medical supplies and home- and community-based care among them — are prime candidates for cutbacks. “Medicare and Medicaid are [likely] safe from major cutbacks, but states will be looking hard at smaller services just because resources are so tight,” said Brian Sigritz, director of state fiscal studies at the National Association of State Budget Officers.
3. Waiting time for services will increase. After four years of government staff reductions, applications for subsidized housing, food stamps and adult protective services are backlogged. “Only the most extreme cases of physical abuse of elders receive top priority, which means that financial exploitation of seniors, which is on the rise, goes unexamined,” said Gerri Madrid-Davis, director of financial security and consumer affairs in AARP’s state advocacy and strategy office.
4. Public pension benefits will shrink. In the last three years, 43 states have cut back pensions and benefits for state and local employees. Pension reforms target retired workers as well as the newly hired through restricted cost-of-living adjustments, fewer retiree health benefits and longer vesting periods. With states facing a combined $1.3 trillion pension gap between what workers were promised and what states have funded, some localities may try to renegotiate past agreements.
If states aren’t restoring services, what are they doing with their improved resources? Many lawmakers seem eager to cut taxes. Eight governors have proposed tax cuts and a dozen states are considering major tax cut proposals this year.
And the 2012 election probably won’t reverse that trend. “After November, it’s unlikely you’re going to see a major influx of state or federal legislators who desperately want to raise taxes on younger, wealthier Americans to pay for services for older ones,” said Jonathan Walters, executive editor of Governing magazine.
Are there any bright spots for older Americans? Here are two.
- Some states and localities are turning to public-private partnerships to provide better transportation through Area Agencies on Aging or to keep state parks open with corporate sponsorship.
- Atlanta, Washington, Boston, New Orleans and Des Moines, Iowa, are among the cities trying to systematically make cities more livable for older adults.
Also of interest: Neighborhood helps residents stay in their homes.
Elizabeth Pope is a writer based in Portland, Maine.