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Generational Equity - Does Age Conflict Exist?

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As early as the 1970s, some social scientists warned that one implication of the growing numbers of elders might be a backlash against the old resulting in intergenerational conflict (Neugarten). The emergence of the generational equity debate shows that such concerns were prescient. But is there conflict between age groups either for resources or for support from the public?

Regarding conflict for resources, Preston's argument sparked considerable interest both among scholars and among foundations and agencies to analyze the issue of age group equity in more detail. The National Academy of Sciences, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funded research and a series of conferences and workshops to study the contrasting economic experiences of children and the elderly. Aggregate data from one study compared the experiences of children and the elderly in the United States with those groups in other Western democracies, and replicated one of Preston's major conclusions: the economic experiences of children and elderly persons in the United States diverged widely from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. In addition, international comparative data showed that children in the United States have much higher poverty rates than children in most other nations with similar standards of living (Palmer et al.). However, the scholars did not draw the same conclusion as Preston. Instead, they pointed out that it was not at all clear that children's doing worse had enabled the elderly to do better, and showed that U.S. poverty rates for the elderly were on the high side compared with other industrialized nations.

Many professionals dedicated to defending and promoting the interests of America's children see the generational equity debate as a dangerous effort to divide the young and the old and to undercut public support for important government programs such as Social Security. Consequently, they have made a concerted effort to quell the divisive rhetoric of generational equity. Of special importance has been their role in founding Generations United, a group whose goal is to "dispel the myth of competition for scarce resources and reap the benefits of inter-generational collaboration. . .and interdependence" (Generations United, 1990). Further, the organization seeks "to foster intergenerational collaboration on public policy and programs to improve the lives of children, youth, and the elderly" (Generations United, 2001, p. 19). According to David Liederman, former executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, who helped to found Generations United, "What we are trying to say is that the fates of the generations are linked. Obviously, I want better programs for kids. . .but they should not come at the expense of seniors, especially the large number who are poor or near poor" (quoted in Pearlstein).

Is there conflict between age groups in their support for programs for older people? Studies show the answer to this question is no. One of the largest and most visible programs is Social Security. In each congressional election year since 1984, the University of Michigan's National Election Studies (NES) surveys have asked a large, nationally representative sample of Americans whether they would like spending on Social Security increased, decreased, or kept about the same (University of Michigan). In each of the nine election years the question was asked, 90 percent or more of respondents in every age group have said they wanted spending either to be increased or to be kept the same. Less than 7 percent ever said they wanted spending on Social Security decreased. Given the frequent claim that young people do not support Social Security, the most surprising finding is that young people are slightly more likely to support increases in spending than are older persons. For example, in the 2000 NES survey of 1,798 Americans, 62 percent of young adults age eighteen to twenty-nine said they wanted spending for Social Security increased, compared with 60 percent of respondents age sixty-five to seventy-four and 56 percent of those age seventy-five and over. These findings are similar to earlier research on public support for Medicare and Social Security by Cook and Barrett.

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