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Florida's grey power

Florida's AARP (originally the American Association of Retired Persons) Director asks the presidenti

You’ve heard it on Sky News and the BBC, and read it in papers from the Guardian to the tabloids: 2008 will be the year of the US youth vote.

Yet even in 2008, Florida’s political portrait is mostly painted in shades of grey. Florida boasts more than 3.2 million citizens aged 65 or older, more than 17 per cent of the population – the highest proportion of any state.

In recent elections, 72 per cent of voters age 65 and older have voted. Only about 48 per cent of those aged 18-24 cast ballots. It’s obvious why half of Florida voters are aged 50 or older and one in four is an AARP member.

Yet after living through the longest campaign season in history, these older voters are still hungry for something that the major parties too often haven’t provided - leadership capable of rising above partisan bickering to achieve true national consensus.

This yearning has brought older Floridians, and Americans of all generations, flocking to a new and quite different political initiative called Divided We Fail.

Launched in 2007 by AARP and leading business and labour groups, Divided We Fail has worked nonstop for two years. Its army of volunteers in trademark red T-shirts appear in television footage of candidate rallies from Key West to Pensacola and from California to Maine. Nearly one million Americans have signed the Divided We Fail pledge.

Has it worked? Both Obama and McCain have endorsed the Divided We Fail pledge to work across party lines to give Americans the tools they need to build a secure financial future, and to improve access to affordable, quality health care. So have more than 300 members of Congress. Whoever wins on 4 November, Divided We Fail already has scored an important victory because it has tapped into a deep concern among voters on two critical issues: healthcare and financial security.

Three million Floridians lack healthcare coverage. That fact is all the more startling because most Floridians age 65 or older has coverage through the Medicare program – and Florida has more people age 65+ than any other place in America. Government programs also cover many children.

So the real health gap is bigger – between ages 18 and 64, as many as one in four Floridians lack health coverage, a tragedy that proves deadly for thousands every year. Even if you survive, one major illness can wipe out a lifetime of hard work. The most common cause of bankruptcy here, as in the rest of the nation, is unmanageable medical bills.

As important as health care is, it’s clearly secondary to the issue that is crushing older Floridians every day: the economy. Older Floridians have watched helplessly as the fruits of decades of disciplined saving evaporate in the global market meltdown. Electricity and gas costs are up as much as 30 percent. Prescription drug costs are rising twice as fast as inflation. Since 2004, Florida hurricane insurance rates have tripled. Yet Social Security’s cost-of-living increase next year – the highest in a quarter century – is just 5.8 per cent.

And one in five Floridians 65+ rely exclusively on Social Security for their retirement income – a benefit of just $1,000 a month.

At midsummer, polls showed McCain leading among older Florida voters, but as the economy soured and the negative ads aired, Obama gained a narrow lead.

Underlying these divisions, though, is widespread agreement on one thing. Floridians, and Americans generally, will see a change for the better only after their elected leaders focus more on beating America’s problems than on beating up each other.

Lori Parham, Ph.D., is AARP’s Florida state director