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Washington Post: Does Spending on People Age 65+ Hurt Children?

Determining what's owed to older Americans


This week, Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution took on a complicated, potentially controversial subject: Does government spending on older Americans squeeze out spending on programs for children?

“Many pessimists think this outcome is inevitable,” Burtless writes, “and urge us to reduce government commitments to the elderly to make room for spending on the young.”

But by the end of the piece, after reviewing a series of facts, Burtless seems to say he doesn’t quite buy it when people say spending on older Americans comes at the expense of children.

That’s when Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson comes in, responding to Burtless’s piece, with a seemingly different conclusion on the question:

“Subsidies for the elderly threaten more than schools,” writes Samuelson. “They’re crowding out most other governmental activities, from defense to the non-elderly safety net. Popular government (Social Security and Medicare have huge support) is penalizing good government.”

Samuelson points to a few facts and figures:

  • “In 2011, [federal] spending per person 65 and older totaled almost $28,000, while per-person spending on children 18 and younger was about $4,900.”
  • “From 2000 to 2025, spending on the elderly…is projected to rise from 38 percent of the federal budget to 49 percent. Meanwhile, children’s share drops from 8.5 percent to 7.7 percent.”

At the end of his column, though, Samuelson seems to soften a bit:

“No one (at least not me) wants to gut Social Security and Medicare; they are vital,” he writes. “But they need to be modernized to reflect longer life expectancies and more affluence among the elderly — and to lighten the burden on the rest of government.”

“The world we leave to our children needs balanced and competent government,” Samuelson writes in the conclusion of his column. “Achieving that is difficult at best, but we’re making it harder every day.”

Read Gary Burtless’s original piece here. Read Robert J. Samuelson’s Washington Post response column here.

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