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Present tensionThe past and the future

IN his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama said this:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.

That's the rhetoric. Here's the reality:

For decades, the federal government actually has made just such a choice, spending far more, on average, on each senior citizen than on each child — about 6½ times more in recent years. And as baby boomers reach 65 in massive numbers, those trends aren't likely to abate. That's neither right nor wrong — it's a policy choice, after all — but as Americans debate the nation's path and priorities, it's best to do so armed with facts about the current state of affairs: what we're spending on the young, the old, the debt service and defense, among others. Ultimately, what is the role of government? And at what price?

The elderly

In 2008, all government (local, state and federal) spent $26,355 on average for each person 65 or older, most of which is Social Security and Medicare. (These numbers are adjusted to 2011 dollars. Newer state and local numbers are unavailable, and the federal numbers didn't change dramatically between 2008 and 2011.) The federal government accounts for almost all spending on the elderly — averaging $25,455 per person.


Conversely, the federal government spends relatively little on children, and Medicaid is the largest single item. State and local governments spend much more on children because they pay for schools. But overall, governments spend far more than double on seniors than they do on children 18 and younger.

Over time, where federal money has been spent

In the overall federal budget, nearly 4 in 10 dollars go to the elderly and disabled, a percentage that has nearly quadrupled in 50 years. About one in 10 dollars goes to children, a number stable for a decade. Spending on these two groups accounts for just over half the federal budget.

the young, the old and a changing nation

As America moves toward becoming a majority minority nation, there is one quiet but important emerging demographic shift in the data on age. Of the 41 million Americans who were 65 or older in 2011, 33 million — nearly 80 percent — were non-Hispanic whites. Of the 40 million children 9 or younger, only half were.

The numbers we present here may seem very straightforward. But they're not. As we discussed them with experts all along the ideological spectrum, several of them raised warning flags about taking these figures uncritically.

For starters, choosing which factors to count, and which to exclude, can make a difference. As we see in these tables, adding in state and local expenditures greatly reduces — but certainly doesn't eliminate — the spending gap between elderly recipients and children.

And boiling it down to a zero-sum game between young and old can make it seem as if those were the only choices. Indeed, other portions of the federal budget could be targeted instead, from defense spending to interest on the debt. Or people might be willing to pay higher taxes for government to do more.

Perhaps most crucially, if you spend dollars on the old, that can indirectly aid the young, and vice versa.

Imagine you're a teenager. If the government didn't spend Social Security on your elderly grandfather or your disabled brother, your parents would have to pick up the slack — and your parents would have less money to spend on you. The reverse is also true: If your local government didn't spend money on your public school, your grandfather might have to shell out more money for your education, which would reduce the money he can spend on food and housing. Or perhaps you wouldn't be well educated at all and would be less likely to become a productive member of society. It has been estimated that spending three dollars for an elder saves one dollar for a child, and vice versa.

Finally, some experts suggest that the issue isn't spending on the elderly versus spending on children. Rather, it's a question of what policies can promote high employment and growth versus policies that promote consumption today.

Louis Jacobson, Times staff writer

Based on interviews with Eugene Steuerle, Julia Isaacs, Katherine Toran, Caleb Quakenbush (Urban Institute); Henry Aaron (Brookings Institution); Timothy Smeeding (University of Wisconsin); Douglas Besharov (University of Maryland); Regan Lachapelle (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), Chris Edwards, Jagadeesh Gokhale (Cato Institute).

Average government spending

on each elderly person


... and on each child


the elderly get $1.2 trillion. kids? $444.7 billion

Here is the breakdown for 2011 on overall spending (and tax credits) for children and seniors. As you can see, the biggest category for children isn't "spending" at all, but "tax credits and exemptions" that parents receive to reduce their tax burden. See more details, page 1P

1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010

180 million 203 million 227 million 248 million 281 million 309 million

Present tensionThe past and the future 01/26/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 2:03pm]
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