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Thursday, March 28, 2013

We Are a Rich Country: The False Dichotomy of Caring for the Old Versus Burdening the Young

Hannah Weinberger-Divack

Many characterize the debate over the future of social insurance as a clash between the old and the young or the brown and the gray.  Such divisions are short-sighted, however, because the debate over Social Security and Medicare is really a conversation about collective future.  NASI’s 25th annual policy research conference captured the essence of the ongoing struggle for change.  The opening and closing keynotes of the conference clearly captured the dilemma Americans face: we agree that it is time for action, but what action?

Diverse Backgrounds, Similar Goals
In the opening session, Vanessa Cárdenas of the Center for American Progress explained how changing American demographics are affecting the challenges facing public programs.  As a member of the millennial generation, I was particularly interested to learn that we are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation that American has ever seen.  Will the so-called divide between the brown and the gray dictate American politics for the coming decades?  This seems overly simplistic; it ignores the strong ties that bind generations together.  People of every race and ethnicity have parents and grandparents and other family members who will enter retirement one day, and the growing millennial electorate is generally supportive of public programs.

Young People Want Social Insurance to Stay Strong for Their Own Retirement Years
Young people have good reason to support social insurance—ensuring sufficient resources when we retire.  In a NASI Conference session, Saving for Retirement – in Addition to Social Security,” Karen Friedman of the Pension Rights Center described how millions of Americans are facing inadequate retirement resources.  In fact, fully one half of Baby Boomers who are currently working have saved nothing for retirement. And there is no indication that millennials will be any better at saving than our parents were.  Yes, we are young and have time to start building assets, but as Duncan Black of Media Matters for America observed, young people entering the workforce right now are doing so with mortgage-sized student loans.  Add to that the fact that millennials are unlikely to ever have access to a defined benefit pension plan.  It seems very likely that young people are going to rely on support from Social Security and Medicare even more than current retirees, so why would we want to cut those programs?

Cutting Social Insurance Hurts Younger Workers Right Now  Millennials’ reasons for supporting social insurance aren’t entirely self serving.  We are also worried about our parents and grandparents.  According to a recently released NASI survey, seventy-eight percent of Americans say that they don’t mind paying Social Security taxes because they know that if their parents, grandparents, or other relatives did not receive Social Security, they would have to support them in their retirement.  This figure is particularly telling:   

  • Most people care so strongly about the well-being of older generations that they are willing to pay their own money to maintain public programs. 
  • Cutting social insurance programs does not help younger workers, because those same workers will bear a large burden of the care of their older relatives. 
  • Young people largely recognize that they have a responsibility to ensure that retirees do not fall into poverty, and cutting social insurance programs will shift the costs that young people face from payroll taxes to out-of-pocket expenses.

Do Young People Know or Care?
It’s clear that younger workers should care about social insurance, but do they?  I certainly do, because I want to make sure it there for my parents who are already retired, and for me when I retire many years from now.  Next year, I will be a Skadden Fellow at the National Senior Citizens Law Center working to expand access to home- and community-based services for low-income older adults through new Medicaid options created by the Affordable Care Act.  I will focus on California and Maryland, two of the first states to adopt ACA options that shift incentives away from institutional care.  California’s proposal, approved this September, will affect over 460,000 people with disabilities and older adults.  Maryland’s program, approved this summer, proposes a broad revamping of the state’s assessment and care management processes.  I want to help ensure that low-income seniors have access to service that they want, need, and are legally entitled to receive.

We are a rich country, and we have one of the least generous Social Security programs in the developed world.  Cutting social insurance will increase the burden on young people who need to help their older relatives with increasing medical expenses, who want to ensure their older relatives live above the poverty line, and who are dedicated to the idea that we as a society have an obligation to the generations that came before us.  The bottom line is that young people care about social insurance and want to make sure it is there for them when they need it.


Hannah Weinberger-Divack is a 3rd year law student at the University of Illinois and a graduate of the University of Chicago.  Before law school, Hannah worked at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law where she managed a year-long project to increase the financial security of people with disabilities. After graduation she will be a Skadden Fellow with the National Senior Citizens Law Center where she will advocate for low-income, older adults to receive health and personal care in their homes, avoiding unnecessary institutionalization. Hannah was one of six students and young professionals awarded a scholarship to attend NASI’s 25th annual policy research conference January 31- February 1, 2013, in Washington, DC.

Posted on March 28, 2013  |  Write the first comment

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