The Generational Equity Debate
During the mid-1980s one form that the debate over welfare spending took was attention to the relative amount of federal spending on different age groups. It became clear that the federal government was spending much more on elderly persons than it was spending on children. Those on the political right used this to frame what came to be called the ‘‘generational equity’’ debate (Williamson and Watts-Roy). Their argument was that the nation was spending too much on Social Security, health care, and other programs for the elderly, thereby leaving too little for other age groups, particularly children. Another part of the argument was that each generation should be expected to pay for its own retirement. Opponents of this framing of the debate over welfare spending argued that it was not reasonable to expect each generation to pay the full costs of its own retirement as special events such as war or depression can handicap certain generations. These opponents of the generational equity framing also argued that the emphasis on generational equity was being used as an excuse to ignore other important equity issues, such as those linked to race, class, and gender.
The generational equity debate came to include the issue of health care rationing. Daniel Callahan, in Setting Limits, made the controversial argument that, as the population continued to age, Americans would need to limit the share of health care resources that older persons received. Callahan’s critics claimed that he was scapegoating older adults, unfairly blaming them for the poor management of health care financing in the United States. They pointed to the evidence that many other nations are able to provide health care for the entire population while spending a much smaller share of the gross national product to provide that care.
Even the opponents of the generational equity framing of the debate over the future of the welfare state recognize that the nation will need to make some adjustments to help pay for the retirement of the baby boomer generation. The costs of providing Social Security pensions and health care as well as spending on housing and social service programs aimed primarily at the older population are likely to increase when the boomers retire. Both conservatives and liberals recognize that some cuts in projected spending will need to be made to compensate for the increased number of beneficiaries.
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