Most of the nation's oldest population is now clustered in the Northeast and growing rapidly, according to Census data, straining medical, housing and transportation budgets and forcing lawmakers to look for new approaches. And legislators and governors are reaching the conclusion that the way to pay for the elderly is to cater to the young.
That's because younger residents just beginning their careers make up the foundation of a tax base that can support older workers who have retired or will soon do so. And a decade of dramatic internal migrations away from Northeastern states and toward the Sun Belt and the Mountain West is putting shrinking those tax bases into the spotlight.
Today, eight of the top 11 states with the oldest populations are in the Northeast. The median age in Maine is 42.7 years old; in Vermont and New Hampshire it's above 41. West Virginia's population has aged precipitously, too, with a median age of 41.3 years, 8.4 years older than it was in 1990.
Twenty years ago, the picture was much different. The 1990 Census listed Florida residents as the oldest in the nation, at a median age of 36.2 years. West Virginia was the second-grayest state; there, the median age stood at 35.3 years old.
In the intervening two decades, baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, began marching toward retirement. Boomers are less likely to move around the country than younger Americans, who, affected by the recession and the drop in economic opportunities in the Northeast and the Rust Belt, have moved en masse to Southern and Western states. Those factors have sent the median age of Northeastern states soaring.
"There's a demographic explosion," said Lawrence Force, director of the Center on Aging and Policy at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y. "It definitely challenges us to rethink current policy. The funding cannot keep pace with the current demographics, and the reason is the policies were created when the demographics didn't look like they do today."
Older states are starting to feel the squeeze. In Maine, more than 1,500 seniors are on waiting lists for a state Medicaid program and home care services; by 2030, more than 25 percent of the state's residents will be older than 65, according to data compiled by the Portland Press-Herald. More than 18,000 Mainers are turning 65 every year, the AARP reported.
In Tennessee, where the median age has risen 4.5 years in the past two decades, 22 percent of the state's population will be older than 65 by 2020. That figure is more than a 50 percent increase over current levels.
The sharp rise of older populations means states will be forced to dedicate higher percentages of their budgets to social services. The federal government pays the costs of Medicare, the program that provides health care to senior citizens, but states subsidize housing, transportation home care and other costs. With higher percentages of seniors, states have smaller tax bases to draw from to pay for those services.
States are taking differing approaches to expand those tax bases, and to keep younger residents from fleeing to other regions.
In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage blames high taxes for the exodus of younger residents. Lowering the tax burden and creating a "business-friendly" state, he said, would keep taxpayers in the state and attract new companies — and, with them, new jobs.
LePage's administration has proposed eliminating income taxes on pensions, which they hope will make Maine a "retirement destination."
"Maine's demographic imbalance means that there will be fewer employees for businesses, and there will be fewer customers to buy their goods and services," LePage said in a statement.