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Demography. 1984 Nov;21(4):435-57.

Children and the elderly: divergent paths for America's dependents.

Abstract

Let me summarize briefly. My argument is that we have made a set of private and public choices that have dramatically altered the age profile of well-being. These choices are in an important sense joint ones involving the number of dependents we have as well as the conditions in which they live. This jointness derives from several sources. One is that the same institution--the conjugal family--remains the principal agent responsible for both childbearing and childrearing. Factors that influence the health of that institution invariably affect both numbers of and conditions for children. There was simply no way to protect children fully from the earthquake that shuddered through the American family in the past 20 years. The factors at work here are not only the objective conditions we face but also the set of values and mental constructs we elect to face them with. At the other end of the age scale, we can obviously affect the number of elderly persons as well as their circumstances by altering health programs, as we have so decisively chosen to do. A final source of jointness is that numbers themselves affect conditions. Some of these effects are largely inadvertent, as I've argued in regard to public schooling, and others seem to be very deliberate outcomes of the political process. It's useful to step back and ask whether the mixture of numbers and conditions that we've chosen is the one that best serves us. In regard to redistributions from the working-age population to the elderly, the answer is far from obvious. There is surely something to be said for a system in which things get better as we pass through life rather than worse. The great levelling off of age curves of psychological distress, suicide and income in the past two decades might simply reflect the fact that we have decided in some fundamental sense that we don't want to face futures that become continually bleaker. But let's be clear that the transfers from the working-age population to the elderly are also transfers away from children, since the working ages bear far more responsibility for childrearing than do the elderly. And let's also recognize that the sums involved are huge. Just the increase in federal expenditures on the elderly between 1977 and 1983, if distributed among the population under age 15, would come to well over $2,000 per child.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

PMID:
6394374
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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