There are, in life, small moments of recognition that produce a click, a glottal stop of consciousness. Finally, once and for all, you know something is out of whack.
Maybe it happens when you read the statistics again and at last it sinks in. Today a child in America is six times more likely to be poor than an elderly person.
Maybe it happens when you notice a line on Form l040. Everyone over 65, no matter what income level, is entitled to a second personal exemption.
Or maybe it happens because you know someone young and struggling who is paying Social Security taxes, and you know someone old and wealthy who is getting benefits.
For me, it happened as I read a tale of the joys of aging written by Sheilah Graham. The Hollywood gossip columnist wrote about a house in Palm Beach and pleasure trips abroad. Almost incidentally, she added: "This is a small matter, but it gives me satisfaction to pay half- fare on buses and trains and only $2 at the movies." Click.
It's not that I begrudge Sheilah Graham her "satisfaction" nor do I know the bottom line of her bank account. But somehow I do not think she is the person we had in mind when we thought of bus sudsidies and senior-citizen discounts, or when we established social programs and tax policy.
Something has gone out of whack. We have looked at the elderly too long as a single class. By and large, they are no longer the "ill-clad, ill-housed, ill-nourished" population that Franklin Delano Roosevelt described. The country has done a remarkable job of changing that portrait and so have the elderly themselves. Today, the rate of poverty among those over 65 is lower than among the rest of Americans.
We've made these changes at a cost that we find easier to calculate than to remedy. This year, the working population will pay $200 billion in Social Security taxes. Those benefits have increased 46 percent in real terms since l970, while the real wages of those who pay them have declined by 7 percent. Over half of the money from all the social programs goes to the 11 percent of Americans who are elderly.
"The transfers from the working-age population to the elderly," Samuel Preston of the University of Pennsylvania explains, "are also transfers away from children, since the working ages bear far more responsibility for child- rearing than do the elderly."
This isn't a time for elder-bashing, nor do I have the stomach for generational warfare. We can't replace the stereotype of the impoverished old with a new stereotype of the entitled old. But it is important to update policies to match the new reality. As Preston says, "If the main purpose of social programs is to help people who are poor have more resources, it doesn't make sense to use age as an indicator of poverty."
There is already some pressure to right the imbalance within and between generations using the tax structure. We now tax half the Social Security of elderly couples with incomes over $32,000 and put that money back into the Social Security Trust Fund. There is, at least, talk of extending that tax and of awarding future cost-of- living increases on the basis of need.
As for Medicare, some reformers recommend raising money from the 40 percent of elderly who pay income taxes and using it to lower Medicare premiums for low-income people. Other politicians, from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to President Reagan, want to raise the personal tax exemption for all but the highest income brackets to $2,000 as an aid to families with children.
These are nibbles and not complete answers. There are few politicians who want to raise the hackles and the opposition of their older constituents by raising issues such as the one posed by Paul Hewitt of AGE (Americans for Generational Equity): "Everybody in the country agrees that it's a good idea we aren't providing student loans for families with $100,000 incomes, and yet we are doing it with Social Security."
Only 38 percent of the voters in the country live with children. It is an article of faith among politicians that the elderly will think of themselves first. But I am not so sure or so cynical. In that same article, Sheilah Graham wrote, "As an older person, I don't have to worry about the future. I am in the future." But then she talked of giving something to her grandson.
This is the other model that older Americans respect: the family. In the family, when it works right, we do not send our children to summer camp while our parents are without food. Nor do we send our parents to Florida while our children need clothes for school. We make adjustments; we balance the checkbook according to need. It is time to re-balance that checkbook now -- not by a standard of age alone, but using the calculator called fairness.