Hard choices loom as US ages, families shrink

At one time, young parents smiled down on bassinets across America and saw legions of future engineers, teachers, executives, scientists, mill workers -- and parents.

Following World War II, a family of five or six members was not uncommon. But by 1970, the US Census Bureau reported that the size of the average family had dropped to 3.1 persons. Now, with the 1980 nose count behind it, the bureau has documented a US population that is becoming older and living in smaller families as the postwar baby boom matures. And this trend carries with it important social and political consequences.

Besides the current social security debate, demographers point to other issues that could be just as important: a lower crime rate, fewer divorces, a shift in the nation's housing, change in emphasis in education, and other publicly provided services.

The Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans over age 65 has jumped 28 percent in the past decade. This boosted the median age to over 30 from 28 in 1970, the highest it has been in 30 years. At the same time, federal census takers find that the size of the typical American household has dropped from 3.1 persons to 2.8. Officials expect both trends to continue through the 1980s.

One of the key reasons for these important demographic shifts is the maturing of those born during the post-World War II baby boom. This period spanned 1946 to 1964, which means that baby boomers are moving out of school into the labor force and even middle age.

"The need for elementary schools has got to decline and the need for old age facilities is going to increase," says Bryant Robey, editor of American Demographics Magazine.

Mr. Robey also expects these changes to affect the labor market.

"We got a call from a man with a fast-food chain who complained that he was finding it harder to hire teen-agers," he says. "We suggested that he look at 60-year-olds, and I think you'll see more of that. You'll see the labor force shift to accommodate the needs of older people to work."

Robey and other demographers also expect the rising median age to effect the nation's crime rate, since a high portion of crime is committed by men in their late teens and early 20s.

James Weed, a demographer with the Census Bureau, expects a similar drop in the divorce rate, as well as in the total number of divorces, for the same reason.Most divorces, he says, come during the first few years of marriage.

Social security may not be the only federal program the President runs into difficulty with because of long-range demographic shifts.

The administration wants to "cap" medicaid, which provides health care for the poor. The elderly have their own health program (medicare), but medicaid pays nearly half the nation's nursing home costs. Housing subsidies would be reduced under Reagan's budget, but the elderly are three times more likely to live in substandard housing than the national average.

There is now general agreement that the federal "social safety net" may not be as taut or closely woven as the President earlier indicated. This could be of particular concern to older Americans, one out of six of whom have incomes below the poverty level.

Housing is another area that could be affected. The Census Bureau predicts that the median household size could drop to as low as 2.2 persons by 1995. This means smaller houses and apartments will be called for, as well as an accelerated need for housing generally. It also could add to the upward pressure in housing costs, since more people with higher per capita incomes will become home buyers.

The recently reported figures also could widen regional differences, demographers report. The median age difference between Northeast and West is widening, and an older population could add to social and economic difficulties in the East. Says Bryant Robey, "You can't say these returns are good news for the mayors of big Northeastern cities."

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