Where, where but here have Pride and Truth
That long to give themselves for wage,
To shake their wicked sides at youth
Restraining reckless middle-age?
- W.B. Yeats
Heather, a jeans-clad 26-year-old with long
curly hair, is worried about the deficit. "Last year I paid an additional
$800 in taxes just for the interest on the federal debt," she says. "At
this rate, I'll be spending my whole life paying off the bills run up by our
parents and grandparents." Pacing across a spacious loft high above some
major city, Heather warns that it is time to balance the federal budget. "Budget
deficits hurt all Americans," she says angrily, "but it's our
generation that gets hit the hardest."
If you haven't seen Heather, you probably don't watch MTV. In the weeks leading
up to the November budget showdown, Heather appeared frequently on the
youth-oriented music video network thanks to the Coalition for Change, a
consortium of four well-heeled interest groups that favor balanced budgets.
Formally unveiled at a press conference at Washington's Planet Hollywood
restaurant, and financed primarily by the Business Roundtable, the Heather
advertisement represented the latest volley in a now-familiar campaign to cast
the debate over social spending in generational terms, pitting the old--the ones
who purportedly ran up the national debt--against the young--the ones who will pay
the bill, or so we are told. In this script, Republicans are in the novel role
as saviors of the young, determined to vanquish any whining liberals who
question the conservatives' definition of fiscal responsibility.
As a means of mobilizing young deficit hawks, these efforts have been less than
spectacular. Lead...or...Leave, the twentysomething lobby famous for its
appearances on Nightline and the cover of U.S. News and World Report,
had to close up shop early this year when it ran out of members and then money.
Third Millennium, a nonprofit group financed in part by former Republican
presidential advisers Pete Peterson and John Whitehead, still claims fewer than
2,000 members after three years of existence.
Yet if the efforts by groups like the Coalition for Change have not been a hit
at the grass roots, they have succeeded in another, no less critical, mission:
framing the public debate. Spoon-fed to a receptive media establishment by these
twentysomething front groups, conservative think tanks, and well-paid public
relations firms, generational equity has become a dominant theme of the budget
battle. Among its manifestations this year was an article by Elizabeth Kolbert
in the New York Times Magazine, warning that the budget issue boils down
to a question of whether America's children will be stuck with their
grandparents' bill. As if the point wasn't clear enough, Newsweek
helpfully illustrated its "Mediscare" cover with a photo of a
young man buckling under the weight of an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
What's wrong with this picture? Lots. It's a caricature
to suggest that the elderly soak up all public benefits while the young's only
connection to government is via the Internal Revenue Service. Without federal
food and nutrition programs--the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, food
stamps, school lunches--millions of low-income pregnant women and their children
would grow up malnourished, as they did in America only a few decades ago. Head
Start helps make kids ready for school, and like the nutrition programs, the
evidence indicates that it works. Conservatives typically argue that programs
for the poor affect only a small fraction of the population. But the U.S. has
the highest child poverty rate of any major industrialized nation--25.3 percent
of children under age six grow up in poor families. Of the 13 million Americans
on welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), 9 million are children.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Republican cut in the earned
income tax credit (EITC) will mean that the working families of more than 23
million children will on average pay an extra $415 annually by the year 2002.
Medicaid is another instructive example. With the legal entitlements gone under
the new budget, the Urban Institute estimates 4.4 million children will lose
Medicaid coverage altogether, even if the states make up for some of the
reduction in federal aid by cutting payments to health providers (which, in
Medicaid, are not exactly munificent).
As children get older, the government's role in their lives increases, most
conspicuously through public education. More than 90 percent of the nation's
children are enrolled in public schools. Although Uncle Sam is directly
responsible for only 6 percent of public school funding, the Republican budget
would deprive the states of more than $33 billion in education funds over seven
years, according to the National Education Association. Moreover, the flow of
federal money into states for a host of other purposes frees state and local
resources for education. Some southern states depend on federal aid for as much
as 40 percent of their revenue. As federal money drops, these states will be
hard-pressed even to maintain spending on schools, much less to increase it.
Government programs also bolster economic prospects for young adults, who will
feel the pinch of Republican cuts. The most obvious example here is college
loans. Tuition, up 92 percent in the last ten years for private four-year
colleges, now prices many middle-class families out of the market. Yet the
Republicans cut billions out of the college loan program (not to mention
additional millions from grants for poor kids) both by increasing costs to
student borrowers and slashing Clinton's direct-lending program (a reform
measure that would have saved $6 billion even by some conservative estimates).
Nor does the conservative caricature reckon with the laws and regulations
affecting the workplace that positively benefit families. By enacting parental
and family leave policies--and, indirectly, by enacting labor laws that allow
unions to fight for good working conditions--government provides some modest
protection to the average working parent. To be sure, the U.S. government could
be doing more in this regard, as European nations do. But here is another case
where young people clearly benefit from government intervention, and could
benefit a lot more.
Of course, the deficit reduction pitch is most directly aimed at young adults
like the Coalition's Heather. And, in fact, young adults are in worse economic
straits than at any time since the Great Depression. Falling wages, a tighter
labor market, and rising college costs have made it harder for young people to
maintain their parents' standard of living, much less get ahead. A national
survey by scholars at the Cooperative Institutional Research Program in 1991
found that the median parental income of incoming college freshmen had increased
more than twice as fast as the median income of all families with children--yet
one more sign that America's class structure is becoming more rigid.
Well-publicized economic anxiety in the under-30 crowd gives credibility to the
deficit hawks' evocation of the lost American Dream. But let's take a closer
look at Heather. She is supposed to be a typical twentysomething, right down to
her untucked flannel shirt. Yet to pay $800 in taxes just to cover the interest
on the debt, as she claims, Heather probably makes somewhere in the neighborhood
of $28,000 a year, according to Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax
Justice. That may not sound like much money, but Heather is quite well-off for
her age. Census figures show that median income for 25- to 29-year-olds is a
mere $17,000 (and just $14,400 for 25- to 29-year-old women), and their share of
the debt burden is accordingly smaller. Maybe Heather lies awake nights counting
deficit dollars, but most of her generation worry less about the IRS than about
health insurance or just making a living wage.
Here is the real debate that the "mortgaging-the-future"
rhetoric glosses over. Why are many young people facing such dismal prospects?
The presumption in the Heather campaign is that the culprit, pure and simple, is
deficit and debt. Rapid debt deflation, however, will likely shrink economic
growth and mean fewer jobs for young people. Much of what government spends on
the young, moreover, can fairly be scored as an investment in the future.
Spending less on education and training will reduce their future opportunities.
The generational argument is a distraction from another real issue. Suppose for
a moment the logic of budget cutting, down to zero deficit, is compelling. Then
who should pay for it? In the conservative caricature, it comes down to the old
versus the young. But does the 25-year-old waitress really have more in common
with the 25-year-old college graduate who has a cushy advertising job than with
the 50-year-old laborer with no health insurance? The key divide is not
generational--it's economic. If we have to cut, we could, of course, cut tax
breaks that disproportionately benefit the rich, not the EITC.
And it's hard to reconcile the conservatives' professed concern for children
with their protection of such corporate welfare programs as weapons purchases
even the Pentagon doesn't want. It's hard to blame Grandma for bankrupting the
public till when, as Karen Paget wrote in these pages (see "Can't Touch
TAP, Fall 1995), respected defense experts from both the left and right
think it is possible to cut as much as $200 billion from the Defense budget over
seven years. That money alone would eliminate the need for the cuts in Medicaid
and school lunches. Corporate welfare accounts for $25 billion a year in
subsidies and $20 billion more in tax breaks, according to the Progressive
Policy Institute. Even if some of that "welfare" arguably represents
legitimate government investments, there's enough fat in there to make up for
the EITC reduction.
What's more, if the Republicans were really worried about the economic prospects
for young Americans, what about raising the minimum wage? More than 25 percent
of all Americans who make the minimum wage are under the age of 20. A hike in
the minimum wage would provide an immediate boost to struggling
twentysomethings, and according to recent research by Princeton economists Alan
Krueger and David Card, there would be no significant adverse effect on jobs.
There's a reality gap here. The Republican interest in the young stops where
their other economic interests begin--which may help explain why the generation
gap hasn't been a hit at the grass roots. But where complicated budget issues
are concerned, the pretense of popular support is less a reflection of
grassroots activism and more the result of conventional wisdom, as certified by
reputed experts and the media. Every time a congressman reiterates the
generational argument, every time a newsmagazine prints it, every time a
television actress shouts it, it gains new intellectual currency, diverting
attention away from more fundamental questions that might spotlight real issues
of inequality and slow down the momentum of the conservative assault on the
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