White House shifts focus from elderly to young

February 23, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Focusing on the future, President Clinton's economic program heralds a significant shift in attention from the needs of the country's oldest citizens to those of the youngest.

Mr. Clinton said last week the nation must begin to invest in its children's future and backed up his words by calling for higher taxes on Social Security recipients and proposing billions in new spending on poor children.

In essence, he was asking members of one of the most politically powerful groups, the elderly, to sacrifice in favor of those too young to vote. It was the first time in recent memory that a president had done so.

The administration's emphasis on children's programs is long overdue in the view of many advocates, who have wondered why a government that spends heavily on the elderly through Medicare and Social Security does not do the same for children. One of five children now lives in poverty, close to double the rate for older Americans.

While there has been growing consensus on the need for action, the presence of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the White House has provided a spectacular boost for the agenda of the Children's Defense Fund, a group with which the first lady has long been associated. Its founder, Marian Wright Edelman, has been Mrs. Clinton's friend and mentor for more than 20 years.

Throughout that time, the fund has urged vastly increased spending for Head Start, immunizations and nutrition programs -- all among the steps proposed by the president.

"Perhaps the most fundamental change our new direction offers is its focus on the future and its investment which I seek in our children," Mr. Clinton said in his speech to Congress.

His overarching message -- the reason for taking the risky step of asking for higher taxes and spending cuts -- is that it's wrong to burden future generations with the budget deficit. Though Mr. Clinton's plan for controlling the deficit falls heaviest on wealthy persons of all ages, he asked the elderly to contribute without offering them any programs in return.

Individual Social Security recipients making at least $25,000 and couples making $32,000 would pay higher income taxes. Medicare premiums would increase in 1996, more sharply than current law requires, and the government would save billions by holding down payments to doctors and hospitals that treat the elderly.

By contrast, he recommended a $500 million increase this year in Head Start, the early learning program for children from 3 to 5 years old, and $75 million more for the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides supplemental nutrition for pregnant and nursing women and young children. Beyond this year's funding request, Mr. Clinton outlined a multiyear, multibillion-dollar increase for both programs.

He also advocated setting aside $300 million for childhood immunizations this year, spending $56 million for meals and snacks at Head Start programs, toughening enforcement of child support laws and expanding the Job Corps, which trains youths 16 to 21 years old.

Mr. Clinton emphasized that he was spreading the fiscal pain around, not targeting the elderly or any other group. Indeed, the rising cost of health care and the growing number of retirees guarantee that spending on Social Security and Medicare, estimated this year to cost more than $430 billion, will continue to increase far faster than spending on children's programs.

But senior citizens groups aren't happy and are hoping to see their members benefit under the program for health care reform that the president is scheduled to present this spring. What they want to be sure of, said a spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons, is that there is "shared sacrifice across the board, across generations."

By shifting resources from the elderly to the young, Mr. Clinton's proposals run the risk of exacerbating generational tensions.

That possibility was raised anew last week when an organization of young people called Lead or Leave staged a protest at the offices of the American Association of Retired Persons to underscore their concern over the cost of the Social Security program and the size of the national debt. The previous week, its leaders squared off with representatives of the elderly on ABC's "Nightline" program.

"None of us wants to go to war with our parents or our grandparents, at least over the national debt, but that's what's going to happen," predicted co-founder Jon Cowan.

The group's name reflects its effort in the last election to get congressional candidates to agree to cut the deficit in half in four years or voluntarily retire.

But children's advocates say such battles between the generations can and should be avoided. David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League, is co-chairman of Generations United, a coalition formed by the league and the National Council on Aging to promote policies beneficial to all generations.

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