Joe Biden has unveiled his first two policy concessions to Bernie Sanders supporters as part of his effort to consolidate Democratic support. And they’re pretty bad.
On health care, Biden plans changes to Medicare where “Americans would have access, if they choose, to Medicare when they turn sixty, instead of when they turn sixty-five.”
The choice of new eligibility age is baffling. Fifty-five to sixty-five year olds have the highest median incomes and sixty to sixty-five year olds have the highest household wealth. For the median worker, the period immediately before retirement represents the peak of their earnings and wealth. While this change would no doubt benefit many low-income or unemployed people in an age group that has a hard time on the labor market, it is the least progressive age group as a whole to target for free health care. Biden unveils this plan in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession that has kicked millions off their health insurance, with a recent poll finding 35 percent of those under forty-five have lost health coverage.
Lowering the eligibility age to sixty also does nothing to alter the politics of Medicare expansion. Sixty to sixty-five year olds are already only a few years away from Medicare eligibility and will have no incentive to push for further expansion. Biden proposes to finance the lower eligibility out of “general revenue,” meaning the financially most well-off age segment would receive free public insurance. Distributionally, this potentially involves significant upwards redistribution with little overall political or economic benefit.
By contrast, expanding Medicare to children — as in the Medicare-for-Kids proposed in the People’s Policy Project’s Family Fun Pack — would be progressive and politically fruitful. This proposal would ease the financial burden on states — which already insure nearly 40 percent of children through the hard-to-lose Medicaid and CHIP programs — and of course young families. This would simultaneously create a constituency to further expand Medicare as people age out while bringing tens of millions of people into public insurance at comparatively little cost.
Biden’s second proposal involves forgiving some student debt for “low-income and middle-class people for undergraduate public colleges and universities, as well as private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and private, underfunded Minority-Serving Institution (MSIs).” While this is significantly better than Kamala Harris’s now infamous proposal, it fails to capture many borrowers in need of relief by opting for yet another convoluted eligibility structure. Most significantly, it excludes attendees of for-profit colleges and universities, who are among the most distressed student borrowers.
For-profit colleges enroll less than 9 percent of students, but account for 25 percent of student borrowing and nearly half of all student loan defaults. If the purpose of student debt forgiveness is to provide relief to working- and middle-class borrowers, excluding for-profit colleges seriously undermines that effort. In fact, a strong case can be made that the federal government has the greatest responsibility to borrowers who attended for-profit institutions. The entire business model of for-profit colleges involved enrolling as many students as possible and loading them up with debt, often targeting students of color, immigrants, and veterans. The government’s lax enforcement of even the barest education standards has left countless students in worse financial shape than had they not attended these institutions at all.
Sanders’s platform embraced universality and comprehensiveness across the board in his bid to transform the American welfare state. Instead of adopting one or two of his proposals, Biden seeks to introduce yet another incoherent set of means-tested programs.
Biden could have opted for popular policies like universal childcare or a child allowance, the latter of which has even been proposed by Republicans like Mitt Romney. Instead, these overtures represent nothing more than the same tortured and conservative approach of the Democratic Party to the welfare state. They end up excluding a large share of those most in need and create no political opening for further expansion — it potentially accomplishes the opposite by setting one group of wage earners against the other. If this is what Biden starts with, it would likely end up even worse as it gets dragged to the right during legislation.
Biden cannot afford to bungle his outreach to Sanders supporters. According to the latest Monmouth poll, Biden is tied with Trump for eighteen to thirty-four year olds: the demographic who supported Bernie strongest of all. The same poll this time in 2016 had Clinton up twenty-three points on Trump with that age group. It would be a mistake to think Sanders’s supporters will take whatever is offered and fall in line. Nobody expects Biden to adopt Sanders’s whole platform. But his campaign should take Sanders’s social-democratic approach more seriously than these proposals suggest.