Splitting the Bill Between Two Generations

A FEW weeks before the beginning of summer vacation, the board of directors of a condominium complex in Tarpon Springs, Fla., banned skateboarding and roller skating on condominium property. The group also warned parents that they would be held responsible if their children broke the rule. Not surprisingly, the ban caused a furor. Older residents, who account for about half of those living in the 422-unit complex, argued that these sports cause property damage and pose liability threats. Parents countered that skateboarding is one of the few recreational activities available to the 300 children in the development. They fear the ban represents an attempt to drive families out of the complex.

Anna Velilla, a dissident board member and the mother of three children, says, ``I have a copy of the letter from the insurance company stating that we're covered for skateboarding and roller skating. When you have a family community, it needs to be family-oriented. You can't expect a kid who's 9 to act like he's 80.''

In a small and very local way, this dispute symbolizes a larger national debate centering around the question: How can the needs and interests of different generations be met fairly and amicably?

That question is echoing through the halls of Congress these days as the House Ways and Means Committee studies the possibility of lowering the surtax older Americans must pay for catastrophic health coverage. Retirees argue that instead of making beneficiaries pay the entire cost of premiums themselves, the government should spread costs among all age groups.

Several members of the House committee have characterized the issue as one of ``intergenerational conflict'' - competition between young and old for increasingly scarce federal funds.

That same competition lies at the heart of another current Congressional debate: Who should pay for child care? Jonathan Rauch, writing in this month's Atlantic, calls the debate an example of the ``politics of redistribution'' and explains:

``When we discuss spreading through society more of the burdens of child-rearing, we are talking about transferring money from the later part of adulthood to the earlier, and also from those who do not have children to those who do.''

The challenge facing Americans today, he says, is how to achieve this transfer - this ``spreading of sacrifice between old and young'' - without tearing the country apart politically. ``People who do not have children could be against it,'' he warns, ``because they would pay the bill. And it is a big bill.''

Behind the public debate over who will pay the nation's big bills for child care and catastrophic health care are two questions:

What are the responsibilities of one generation for another? And what entitlements can each generation rightly expect from government?

The same questions of entitlement - and at whose expense - also can be raised in the private sector. Airline discount coupons for people 62 and over have become a lucrative business. Many restaurants now offer ``senior discounts.'' And banks increasingly lure older customers with ``50 Plus'' and ``Portfolio 55'' accounts.

``Reaching age 50 has its privileges,'' proclaims an ad for a Virginia bank. What the bank calls ``a special account for folks over 50'' includes free checking, no-fee travelers' checks, discounts on loans, and ``a host of other savings and bonuses.''

So far nobody is running comparable ads for young people that read, ``Reaching age 2 has its privileges.'' The closest young children come to receiving perks this summer is a Minute Maid sweepstakes contest that offers a year of Kinder-Care tuition as one of its prizes.

This has become, among other things, the Age of Entitlements, in which society's list of expectations grows at a rate only slightly less awesome than everybody's determination not to be the one to pay. But until the Age of Entitlements becomes the Age of Compromise - or until 9-year-old skateboarders can organize their own special-interest group - the distribution of privileges may not favor the younger generation in Florida or elsewhere.

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