Social Security Changes Would Be Possible If Kids Could Vote

February 07, 1993|By PAUL E. PETERSON

Congress and the interest groups have raised a storm of protest at the first hint that President Clinton might call for a slight trimming of Social Security benefits. But the president's decision to put on the back burner any reform of children's welfare and education programs (while tucking his own child safely away in a public school) gas caused little more than a ripple.

The difference, it seems, is that senior citizens vote, while children do not.

It is immodest to propose that all citizens, even our youngest, should cast votes or have their votes cast for them by their parents or guardians. The proposal would be facetious were it not for the fact that elected officials, to be successful, now must attend strictly to the short-term interests of those directly engaged in the political process.

It is not simply the spend-now-pay-later re-election strategy that has become commonplace in Washington. It is not just the pollute-now-conserve-next-century policy choices that remain in vogue. Incredibly enough, not just future generations are being asked to pay for the pleasure of today's voters: the country's own children who are being asked to sacrifice.

The extent of this sacrifice becomes most evident when children's poverty is compared to that of the elderly. Among those over the age of 65, poverty fell from 35 percent in 1959 to 11 percent in 1989. Meanwhile, poverty among children has increased from 14 to 21 percent.

These trends have been decisively affected by the direction the American welfare state has taken. The Great Society built by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon was a society that was great for America's elderly population.

Between 1965 and 1975, federal programs serving the elderly nearly tripled, from $71.3 billion to $192.9 billion. (All dollars amounts are calculated in constant 1990 dollars.) The proportion of the GNP channeled to elderly programs grew from 2.8 to 5.4 percent. Even when the increase in the number of people living beyond the age of sixty-five is taken into account, expenditures still doubled.

The Great Society also created programs for children, but expenditures for their health and welfare programs amounted to but $42.3 billion dollars or just 1.2 percent of GNP. Had the programs for the elderly been perfectly targeted, the "would-be" elderly poor would have received in cash or in kind an average of nearly $20,000 per person; the would-be poor families with children would have received around $1,800 per child.

One might have thought that the anomalies created in the rush to construct the Great Society would have been gradually corrected in subsequent years. But what was put in place by 1975 is pretty much what exists in the 1990s.

Jimmy Carter's pro-family initiative was aborted by legislative disputations; Ronald Reagan's efforts to turn family-oriented welfare policies over to the states was rejected by Capitol Hill; the Family Support Act of 1988 made only minor modifications in welfare policy; and George Bush aggressively pursued a policy of resigned acceptance of the status quo.

As a result, the growth in expenditure since 1975 has remained extraordinarily unbalanced. Benefits per would-be-poor elderly person have increased from approximately $20,000 to $30,000, while those for the average would-be-poor child have climbed from about $1,800 to $2,700.

Just a modest slowdown in the expansion of benefits to the elderly could have tripled the fiscal attention given to the problems of poor children.

It is not only the dollar amounts that distinguish programs for the elderly from children's programs. More importantly, perhaps, the institutional design of programs for the two age cohorts differ dramatically.

The elderly are more likely to receive their benefits in cash rather than in kind; their benefits are more likely to receive their benefit programs are more likely to be administered by a unified federal agency rather than by a complex, confusing intergovernmental system; they receive most of their benefits through two easily understood programs, rather than from a confusing array of agencies setting varied criteria of eligibility; they can supplement their benefits with income from their own resources; and they can choose their own providers of services, even when the government pays most of the cost.

Let us consider here only the matter of choice in the delivery of services. The elderly have secured a striking amount of choice in the delivery of medical care, even though the case for choice in the selection of one's doctor or hospital is hardly clear-cut. For one thing, because of choice, service providers are forced to compete with one another by steadily increasing the quality of medical care. As a result, the overall cost of medical services in the United States rose from 6 percent of GNP in 1965, when Medicare and Medicaid were inaugurated, to 14 percent of GNP in 1992.

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