We Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between Kids and Seniors

A striking full-page ad in last Sunday’s Washington Post. A toddler and an elderly woman, both posed as boxers, below the headline “Who Is More Important?”.

Here we go again, I thought. Another message about how spending on Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare is impoverishing the next generation.

But no. The actual message is “We Shouldn’t Have to Choose.” Helping to lift seniors out of poverty is good. We should make the same choice for kids.

The evidence the ad gives is a contrast between child and senior poverty rates. The former is a year out of date, but this doesn’t make much difference because the most current official rate — 21.9% — isn’t significantly lower than the rate for 2010.

Where the ad creators got their senior poverty rate (9.3%) is a mystery to me. The latest official poverty rate for seniors is 8.7% — surely better for the case the nonprofit advertiser is making.

If the figures aren’t right, the overall message surely is. Our child poverty rate is shamefully high. And Social Security is undoubtedly one of our most successful anti-poverty programs — arguably the most successful.

Though we don’t have poverty rates dating back to 1939, when it was created, we do have figures showing a dramatic drop from 1960 forward. The latest reported rate is about four times lower than the rate that year.

And Social Security benefits were the most important factor. The senior poverty rate without them would have been a mind-boggling 54.1%.

These are the official poverty rates, of course. The Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure produces a higher senior poverty rate, mainly because it factors in out-of-pocket medical expenses.

The latest SPM boosts the senior poverty rate to 15.1%. This is nevertheless far lower than it would be without Social Security benefits.

So how would we achieve anything like the same result for kids?

The organizations named in the ad — the Next Generation and its campaign spin-off Too Small to Fail — clearly don’t want a replica of Social Security and have thus far said little about affordable health care insurance for kids.

Their aim at this point is to start a national conversation — and apparently to build a sense of responsibility among businesses, policymakers, parents and other caregivers.

The fact sheets on the Too Small website tee up a host of issues gathered under four main headings — education, health, work-life conflict and 24/7 media, i.e., the benefits and perils of access to computers and other digital technologies.

Most, but not all of the issues disproportionately affect low-income children and youth. And addressing them would, as the campaign says, increase social mobility — specifically, the likelihood that children born at the bottom fifth of the income scale will move up in adulthood.

But it’s hard for me to see how the agenda one might derive from the fact sheets would significantly reduce poverty among this generation of kids while they’re still kids — or for that matter, significantly mitigate the hardships that affect them, e.g., hunger, homelessness, acute parental stress.

These, as we’ve been told many times, help explain why so many low-income children perform so poorly on the achievement tests that are now the make-or-break for schools, teachers and ultimately students.

Perhaps the diverse topics for our national conversation will eventually shake out into an actionable policy agenda.

My own sense, however, is that they wouldn’t “create the protections and level of support that are afforded our seniors” — as limited as those are.

For that, we’d need to revisit the principles underpinning major elements of our safety net. First and foremost, however, we’d need a reset of the priorities reflected in the across-the-board cuts that began this week.

Education alone will take a $2.1 billion hit this fiscal year and possibly additional cuts thereafter as Congress parcels out spending so that the totals will come in below the mandatory spending caps — unless, of course, it can agree on an alternative.

A remote possibility now, but down the road apiece a big threat to Social Security benefits.

We need to “fight together for America’s next generation,” as the Post ad says. But we may well need to fight together for the elder generation too.

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