Social Security has been one of the great successes of the New Deal. It began as an effort to keep older people from starving during the Depression but the pay outs have gradually increased. That has made it possible for older people to look forward to a far less bleak old age than they might otherwise have. Older Americans are now seldom secluded in the attics of their children.
The Social Security system works very efficiently (total administrative costs run about 0.6%) because everyone pays in and people of retirement age collect most of the money paid out. That means that young people who are many years away from retirement must pay in. They won’t “see” any of their money for a very long time.
Older people also benefit from Medicare and many can gain health insurance because of Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). We suffer from a constantly hyped fear of socialism (Republicans have for years labeled almost every government benefit, socialism). So, we have cobbled together a system that provides benefits like a socialized system but leaves the actual delivery of those services in private hands.
So older Americans get the benefits provided by Social Security and what amounts to government financed health care. What do young people get? The answer is, not much. They do receive an education through the secondary level but that is largely paid for by money raised at the state level. They can participate in the health care plans of their parents until they are twenty six. They certainly do not get the kind of benefits provided in other advanced countries. Why?
Part of the answer is the old socialism bugaboo. The cost of health care in the awkward hybrid system we have created, in order to avoid the horrors of socializing, costs us five times the cost of health care (per person) in Canada. Almost all of the well over $3.6 trillion dollars we annually spend on health care ($11,000 dollars per person on average) is spent on older people.
Let us say that you are confronted from a visitor from Mars who wants to know why in a democracy, where everyone is equal, people of retirement age manage to get so much more help than the young? What could you say? Part of the answer is that older people vote. Younger people tend not to vote. In 2016, in Michigan, 43% of registered voters under 30 voted in the presidential election. Among those 25 and under, even less did. The average for all voters was 63%. Office holders are really hired by those who vote. They know who hired them.
There is a circular problem here. Voters under 30 get almost nothing from the government. And, they have no reason to expect anything for years. Their grandparents may be collecting Social Security, and will certainly have reasons to be concerned about the future of their health care. The parents of young voters, closer to retirement, have reason to be concerned too. The two older generations have reason to listen carefully to what their elected representatives and their presidential candidate are saying. Young people with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, leave it to their elders.
So, candidates for office don’t say so but they simply don’t worry about young voters and particularly young minority voters. They know that the youth vote will probably be too small to make a difference. Candidates, of course, will not say that in public. They will sound concerned about the youth vote, but that is all they do. Let them eat clichés!
But it is really more complicated than that. When young people do vote, they are most apt to vote in presidential elections. Their vote rarely changes anything. Think about how presidential elections work: Each of the political parties in each state chooses a number of electors equal to that state’s number of Representatives plus Senators (Michigan gets 16). After the election, only the electors of the winning candidates go to their state capitals and vote. It is a winner-take-all system.
If we were to move to a national popular vote then the votes of younger voters would accumulate in national elections. Their accumulating vote would be visible to them and to the campaigns. Candidates would have a real incentive to campaign to them. But, with the electoral system, so long as a presidential candidate wins by one vote he/she will get all a state’s electors.
The national presidential elections may be close (as it was in 2016), but the vote in individual states is seldom close. The candidate of the dominant party just doesn’t need young voters. Candidates concentrate on older voters who they know will vote. To the dominant party in must states, seriously campaigning to young voters is just not worth the effort.
So, Bernie Sanders made a mistake. Worshipful young people came to his rallies to cheer and jeer. The appearance of all those young people created the illusion that there were huge numbers of others who would join a political children’s crusade and allow Sanders to win in state primaries and to arrive triumphantly to the Democratic National Convention. It did not happen. They did not turn out.
Voters under 30 vote in low numbers. Elected politicians surrounded by all that marble in Washington may not always be the most productive but they do know who votes for them. Younger voters have less reason to vote because they get nothing. Elected politicians have little reason to respond to them because they don’t vote. To paraphrase the old song; “The Circle Is Unbroken”!