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Tug of War Over Social Programs. At issue: how to divide tight federal aid funds between the elderly and children in need

By Robert P. HeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1989


A NEW set of poverty figures gives fresh impetus to an old question: Will America's young and elderly soon be in frenzied competition for scarce dollars? Experts say no. ``It's mostly an intellectual issue raised in some quarters,'' - one for which there is ``not much evidence,'' says Marilyn Moon, director of the Public Policy Institute of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

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But the issue ``is more complicated'' than young vs. old, says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He and other experts warn that focusing attention on today's intergenerational battle risks missing the very real conflicts for funding that do exist among competing interests in American society. One example: Can America afford to allow the middle class and poor to continue receiving what many view as federal subsidies, such as social security retirement payments, in the name of fighting poverty?

These underlying competitions threaten to become acute as the Bush administration and Congress begin to grapple with ways to reduce the annual national budget deficit of about $150 billion. On Jan. 20 the new President and the Congress formally assume their offices and the responsibility for what happens on deficit reduction, aid to children, and safeguards for the elderly.

But if no major intergenerational conflict exists now, it could crop up decades into the future, some experts caution. In about 30 years about 77 million baby-boomers will be retired. For every retiree drawing social security payments ``only one American will be working to support'' him - and that person will be paying whopping social security taxes, says J.J. Wuerthner Jr., an executive director of Americans for Generational Equity (AGE). Today, between three and four workers support each retiree, according to the Social Security Administration.

The poverty figures released last week that spawn these concerns come from the US Bureau of the Census and are based on 1986 statistics. They conclude that social security - America's most successful antipoverty program - has made a huge difference in the lives of the elderly.

Today only 14 percent of elderly Americans are poor, and social security retirement payments are a key reason that many more are not. Without those monthly checks from Uncle Sam, 47 percent of America's 29 million elderly would live in poverty, the Census Bureau says.

Programs to aid children are far less successful. The often-criticized welfare programs that give cash to poor families reduced last year's national poverty rate by less than 1 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Nationally, 35 million Americans are poor - 13 percent of all citizens. The poverty that 25 years ago was heavily concentrated among the elderly today disproportionately afflicts America's youngest citizens. Four in every 10 poor Americans is a child, and 1 in every 4 children is poor. Black children suffer the most: Almost half are impoverished.

Federal spending for children is not insignificant, however. Despite all the talk about the Reagan administration having cut back social spending for eight years, this year the federal government expects to spend about $37.4 billion on programs that directly benefit children, according to the National Governors' Association. That amount is $13 billion more than it spent seven years earlier.