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 Clutch Plague. 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 This," 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 public sector.