Op-Ed

How Public Spending Neglects Children

Isabel V. Sawhill

A conflict between the generations is brewing. The stakes are enormous.

Exploding costs for the three big entitlement programs (Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid), along with an aging population and insufficient tax revenues, portend endless deficits and rising government debt.

Often lost in these discussions are the impacts on children. There are 77 million Americans under age 19 and 36 million Americans over 64. But the mix is changing. By 2030 America will be older than present-day Florida, and walkers may well exceed strollers.

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The impacts on children are twofold: First, if we do not rein in deficits by reforming entitlement programs and introducing new revenues, children will pay for our profligacy. Children born today, for example, would face a lifetime tax rate of about 50 percent.

Second, we are shortchanging children by not spending enough on their health, education and care. Currently, Washington spends about 4½ times more on the average elderly American than on the average child. If we include state and local governments, which pay most education costs, per capita spending on the elderly is almost twice that for children.

One area where more money would provide unambiguous benefits is preschool education. Others include enhancing salaries to attract the best teachers (but with pay more closely linked to performance), expanding subsidies for child care and health care for low-income working families, and expanding after-school programs in low-income neighborhoods.

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The United States has made immeasurable strides in improving the lives of our senior citizens — and should continue to do so. But we must rein in spending on the elderly, raise revenues and invest in our youngest citizens.

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