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Government spending on elderly and children

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. Read the graphic, then click to see how the numbers were arrived at.

 
Government spending on elderly and children

Big gap in spending on young, old

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).

[Last modified: Jan 25, 2013 03:04 PM]


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