"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. "
- Hubert H. Humphrey
In the April issue of Esquire magazine, an article entitled “The War Against Youth,” by Stephen Marche emerges as the latest attempt to incite generational conflict. As a result of the attention this piece has received, Generations United has issued a statement in response to the article. You can read our response on the Together blog.
Stephen Marche’s “War on Youth” not only contains generational stereotypes, it espouses some basic errors regarding social safety net programs. This perspective pits the generations against each other and alienates the interests of older adults from children’s issues. We encourage advocates for children, youth, older adults and other vulnerable populations to take action on this latest attempt by some to fuel intergenerational conflict. Here are some talking points in response to the article.
1. INVESTING MORE IN CHILDREN
No one would quibble with the idea that our country needs to invest in its citizens across the lifespan. From babies to boomers, we all deserve opportunities to improve our lives and expand our horizons. A growing body of evidence says that investing in quality childhood education programs nets short- and long-term returns for taxpayers. It prepares our children to compete in a global economy and, therefore, strengthens our nation’s economy.
To thrive, children need more than education, they need nutritious food and quality health care. By providing these at an early age, we can help ensure our children are on the path to a healthy, productive future. Older adults in growing numbers are ready and willing to make these investments happen.
2. GENERATIONS INVESTING IN ONE ANOTHER
Marche’s article unjustly blames the Baby Boomer generation for many of the challenges facing our young people today, including crippling student loans and too-few entry level jobs. He further insinuates that the boomers’ callous indifference to the effect those challenges are having on the young will forever stunt the human potential of today’s youth.
Statistics do not bear out his assertions. A survey by the MetLife Mature Market Institute found that two-thirds of grandparents provided an estimated $370 billion in financial support to grandchildren over a five-year period. This averaged out to $8,661 per grandparent household. They did this not out of duty, but out of concern and love for their young family members.
Thousands of grandparents are also finding themselves raising grandchildren when their children are unable to for any number of reasons. These grandparents get no recompense for their efforts, often having to stretch a small retirement income to feed and clothe their grandchildren. By keeping children out of the foster care system experts estimate that these grandfamilies actually save taxpayers more than $6.5 billion every year.[i]
Grandparents step in to provide daily child care, as well. According to the Census Bureau, among the 11.3 million children younger than five whose mothers are employed nationwide, 30 percent are cared for on a regular basis by a grandparent.
Through individual connections, school and community based projects and national service initiatives, young people contribute to the quality of life and care of many older adults as well by volunteering with meals programs, providing home inspections and repair, teaching technology skills and providing companionship.
Such commitment and sacrifices are common across America, punching holes in the Marche’s theory that the generations are at war with each other. The real truth is the majority of Americans care about each other. They strongly believe, as we do, that “It is not a fight, it is a family.”
Caring for and supporting people of every generation shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. We need to ensure our policies and programs benefit all Americans, whatever their age.
3. COMPARING NET WORTH: IT’S NOT RELEVANT
Income: The amount of money that someone receives on a regular basis
Wealth: The total assets of a household [home value, 401(k) and other savings, checking account, vehicles, etc. MINUS liabilities such as mortgage, car loans, credit card debt, student loans, etc.]
Using a ratio of wealth is misleading. The comparison should be about income.
Typically, householders under the age of 35 haven’t accumulated much wealth. That’s because they tend to spend much of their income paying off debt (including student loans) and establishing their own households. So, while they may have a good income, because of their stage of life, they may have little wealth. By contrast, older householders may have more wealth, but considerably less income.
Let’s take a closer look.
The median net worth for households over age 65 is now $170,494. That may sound like a lot, but what does it really mean? For many people over the age of 65, the bulk of their “wealth” is tied up in their home.
At the time of their greatest earning power, these older Americans were buying and investing in their homes, once considered one of the pillars of solid investment. Times and circumstances have changed the landscape of homeownership and other investments. First came subprime loans, then the housing bubble burst. People over 65 who had once felt secure watched their home values drop significantly while their 401k’s and other retirement investments took a nosedive. The result: higher prices for groceries and essentials, but less money to spend. With much of their wealth tied up in their homes, many retirees now have few liquid assets to serve as a buffer. After all, you can’t buy groceries with drywall or eat the shingles on your roof.
4. KNOWING THE TRUTH: SOCIAL SECURITY IS THERE FOR YOUR CHILDREN
Lest you believe Marche’s “the sky is falling” view of Social Security, you should know that as the program celebrates its 76th anniversary, Social Security remains one of the nation’s most successful, effective, and popular intergenerational programs. Here are other facts to consider:
Social Security is more than a retirement program. It provides essential protections for people of all ages. Social Security pays more benefits to children than any other federal program, protecting 98 percent of the children in the U.S. in the event that they lose a parent to death or disability. Nearly 7 million children receive part of their family income from Social Security.
Social Security is NOT going bankrupt. Social Security has a $2.6 trillion surplus and can pay full benefits through 2033 without any changes. Furthermore, relatively modest changes could be made and would place the program on a sound financial footing for 75 years and beyond.
Social Security will be there for you and has been every day of your life. Social Security has never missed a payment in 75 years. It is 100% solvent for the next 25 years and, in the highly unlikely case that Congress did not act before 2033, Social Security could still pay about three-fourths of benefits thereafter. With minor changes, Social Security can be solvent for years to come.
Americans would rather pay more than see benefits cut. Two-thirds of all Americans agree that they don’t mind paying for Social Security because of the security and stability it provides to millions of Americans.
Social Security should be strengthened, not cut. The best way to invest in and protect our nation’s most vulnerable citizens is to strengthen Social Security, not cut it. Social Security plays a critical role in providing economic security and indispensable protections for children, families, and retirees.
Reinstate the Social Security Student Benefit. When Congress enacted the student benefit in 1965, it recognized the growing importance of a college education and extended Social Security child benefits until age 22 for children enrolled in college. The benefit acknowledged that most young adults enrolled in post-secondary education depend largely on their parent’s income. In 1981, Congress ended the benefit to address the short-term funding crisis of Social Security. By reinstating the student benefit, we can help eliminate financial barriers to college for those who have lost parental support due to disability or death and help offer these students the support they need.
5. UNDERSTANDING THE REAL NATURE OF THIS CONFLICT
Inequality, the rising class system in America, unemployment across all generations and the growing debt are issues that affect all generations. This is not about generational conflict, this is about class conflict.
The top 1 percent has seen its after-tax income increase nearly 400 percent since 1979; but income for the middle 60 percent rose by just 40 percent. In the past decade, typical families have actually lost ground (losing about 6 percent of income), while the top 1 percent has continued to gain. These tax inequities are harmful for children, families, and older adults.
Instead of fighting amongst each other, we should be coming together to fight for fairness.
This figure was calculated based on the federal share of the 2000 average monthly foster care maintenance payment for 1 million children. The Green Book of the Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives estimates the cost at $545 per child. This is approximately half of the children being raised in grandfamilies outside of the formal foster care system. Half the children are used for our calculation, due to a conservative estimate that the other half already receive some type of governmental financial assistance, such as a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) child-only grant. Consequently, the cost of one million children entering the system would represent all new financial outlays for taxpayers.