US spends too much on elderly, too little on kids

“We are eating our seed corn.”

Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund, 2009

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama started the adult conversation over debt and taxes last week — if only barely. In a forthright and feisty speech, Obama defended the traditional social safety net while also acknowledging the need to curb the growth of spending, especially on health care.

But he riled many Republicans by re-introducing an inconvenient truth: Taxes must be raised. The nation simply cannot pay its debts and sustain worthwhile federal programs without more revenue.

While that’s a generally accepted bit of grade-school math in much of the political realm, it has become heresy in the GOP, which has taken up residence in a parallel universe of fairy godmothers, unicorns and Easter bunnies.  In that universe, lowering taxes for the rich magically creates jobs, fills government coffers and spreads prosperity for all.

That’s bunk, of course. George H.W. Bush famously called it “voodoo economics.” Still, that notion — proved wrong as recently as the presidency of George W. Bush — has gained a certain power through frequent repetition.

So it fell to Obama to remind Americans of the Clinton years — when taxes were higher, the budget was balanced, the deficit falling and prosperity widespread. The balanced federal budget was squandered by Obama’s predecessor, who slashed taxes, spent recklessly and presided over a period of tepid economic growth.

Obama will need to repeat the facts that link higher taxes with increased prosperity time and again. And even he didn’t go far enough; the president ought propose raising taxes on the merely affluent, not just the rich.

Moreover, Obama has only started to nibble at health care spending in Medicare, a voracious federal program. He ought to be frank with the nation’s elderly: they are draining an exorbitant amount of the national treasury, taking up resources that ought to be going to the young.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an upside-down social safety net that maroons far too many children while swaddling the elderly in a cocoon. How can the nation “Win the Future” if we spend 2.5 times as much on its old as the young? (If you count federal spending alone, the ratio is more like 7 to 1.)

I don’t mean to sound cavalier about the needs of the elderly, who tend to be sicker and have higher medical expenses. Obama was right to pledge to protect Medicare against the predations of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-), who wants to end it.

But an adult conversation — a truly adult conversation — would engage seniors and help them to understand the consequences of our current spending curve. In nations that suffer famine, we hear wrenching stories of starving parents who give the last scraps of food to their children. We’ve taken a starve-the-kids, feed-the-old approach, instead.

While too many children are stuck in bad schools and poor housing, while community clinics that deliver vaccinations and asthma medicine beg for money, while young adults skip college because they can’t afford it, the elderly were given a budget-busting prescription drug plan during the Bush administration. That makes little sense.

If resources are limited (and they are), the nation needs to make choices – some more painful than others. My brother, Kevin, a Boston physician who treats kidney disease, talks about the Medicare program that pays for dialysis for anyone with failing kidneys — including the terminally ill. Started in the 1970s to help adults still in the workforce, its fastest-growing population is now over 65, he said.  And it costs tens of billions a year.

“It may not be the best use of resources for the frail and infirm elderly, and it also forces many elderly patients to spend their last days in the hospital, rather than at home,” a more comfortable setting, Kevin told me.

Yet, many patients, even octogenarians who don’t expect to recover, find it difficult to turn down the treatment. “And physicians resist having a conversation with patients that recommends they forego dialysis because it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. It’s easier just to recommend the treatment,” he said.

But those are exactly the adult conversations we ought to be having.

218 comments Add your comment


April 15th, 2011
12:14 pm

Some People are stupid,

The fact that you state illegals don’t pay every tax we have to pay is a crime. Them being illegal is a crime. I don’t care if they are poor or not, it does not entitle them to free healthcare in this country that myself, you, and everyone else is paying towards. I am not wealthy, I’m 27 with a wife and a kid who are both a year or two out of college, and face the same challenges as everyone else. I don’t consider myself poor, but I make barely enough to pay for my bills at this moment with no room for error. and you know what, I paid for my kid to be born, I paid for her to go to the emergency room at two days old, I paid, even though I am considered poor by the numbers. They get the benefit of having babies for free, allowing them immunity in this country, and yet they don’t pay into it, your words. Their sales tax on food doesn’t amount to what they cost us, rent doesn’t amount to education cost that they add up, so they do not come even close to holding up their end of the bargain. Why can’t they file for citizenship and that be the end of it?

I would never want a child to starve, and my point doesn’t express that, but there needs to be a reform in this country that puts more responsibility on parents to not have kids that would starve or be a burden on the rest of society.

As far as the unemployment money, you are correct that $350 a week doesn’t add up to their $75,000 salary before, but people also have to lower their expectations and take that $50,000 job instead and cut back on all of the things that cost them before if they can’t continue to live on $50,000 a year. All of my points fall on responsibility of the citizens of this country. People have lost that, because the government has warmed them up to the idea of always taking care of their problems.

bout time

April 15th, 2011
12:30 pm

So the kooks are finally admitting to wanting death panels? I knew it was just a matter if time.

willie lynch

April 15th, 2011
12:42 pm

I’ve alway’s found the term “end of life care” quite puzzling.

willie lynch

April 15th, 2011
12:47 pm


April 15th, 2011
12:14 pm

I agree, people should have to accept the fact that they will have to lower their expectations. That’s why the rich (who can afford it) should pay more taxes. I’m sure hey can afford to live off of 1 million plus they just need to cut back on the things they were doing before. It’s great when we can agree.

stands for decibels

April 15th, 2011
12:49 pm

Haven’t been here for awhile… wonder whassup…

bluetooth in your ear, a 50″ TV on the wall, a GPS on your dashboard, and a receipt in your pocket from the $100 meal you had last night

yep. About what I expected.


April 15th, 2011
12:50 pm

I cannot decide which book Tucker reads more often. ‘Rules For Radicals’ or ‘Mein Kampf.’

Billy Ray Valentine

April 15th, 2011
12:55 pm

In 2015 Cynthia Tucker will write a book about the Obama administration.

I’m sure it will be a wonderful book :o ) , but she will have to borrow the title,
“Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”


April 15th, 2011
1:01 pm

The next book will be You Can’t Fix STUPID!!! Funny, not one response from the columns author.

Some People are Stupid

April 15th, 2011
1:02 pm


The free healthcare doesn’t have anything to do with them being here illegal or not. Thats the point you are missing. If you said…they are illegal and get section 8…then you have a point, but to discuss healthcare,in terms when everyone has the ability to get it free just by being indigant doesn’t apply. By your account, you should be mad at the citizens as well who go for free. The are plenty of citizens that don’t pay into healthcare in general. That comment was intended to refer to SSI and Medicare, which they aren’t entitled to. I’m confused, you are 27 with kids a one or 2 years out of college, I’m assuming that’s a typo.
If you believe sales tax doesn’t amount to much in ga i ask you to look at the breakdown of revenues. Also, if the rent portion of property taxes doesn’t amount to anything, then everyone who stays in an apartment is shortchanging the system. You would have to ask an illegal why they don’t just file for paperwork

Reform like what,unless you want the government to mandate how many kids you can have(China). That doesn’t sound too conservative. There are already caps on numbers and amount of time spent on gov’t assistance.

So let me get this straight, not only do you believe that the vast majority of the unemployed aren’t looking, you also believe that the person who was making 75k won’t take a 50k job, but would rather make 18k a year on unemployment. That doesn’t even begin to make sense


April 15th, 2011
1:48 pm

Some People are Stupid ,

I apologize, after I read what I wrote I realized it did sound confusing. I am 27 years old, wife is 25, and we are both 1 and two years out of college with a 5 month old kid. By that, I am saying I am not a rich person and in the same boat as most Americans living a modest life. So my comments about free healthcare that illegals are partaking in because they are poor didn’t sit well with me considering I am lower middle class by the numbers, and I paid for the healthcare I used.

The small percentage of taxes they pay with every day life doesn’t add up to squat on what the should be paying is my entire point about the illegals. They are taking much more than they are giving in, and that is a fact. If it wasn’t the truth, then no one would have a problem with them here in our country. You are very short sided if you don’t think they are hiding for a reason. They aren’t illegal because they want to be citizens, they are illegal so they can reap the benefits without paying the costs.

I am not a communists, but I would seem as if some hard headed folks in this country need a reminder like China, because they are pumping out babies like it’s going out of style. Caps and amount of time are obviously being abused because it’s a problem that doesn’t sit well with a lot of Americans.

Your last paragraph is a very misleading statement to upend my point. It’s in the papers and you hear through the grapevine about how people are remaining on assistance while they find a job paying equal or more to what they were getting paid. They can’t live on $18,000 a year forever, and I never said they could, but they are riding the gravy train while they hold out for the best offer they can find, and if it takes a year or two, so be it, cause they are still receiving checks. The economy will never be back to what it used to be and people need to realize that their lives are in for a change that will force everyone to watch their money. All these $500,000-$1 million dollar neighborhoods that were popping up everywhere are a thing of the past. People are going to have to learn that things will never be the same and have to live within their means. Not exactly a hard concept to understand. Once the jar is empty, it’s empty.


April 15th, 2011
1:59 pm

“Once the jar is empty, it’s empty. Not exactly a hard concept to understand.”


I genuinely believe that someone like Cynthia Tucker looks down her nose at common sense, and I believe this of many on the radical left these days. Like Cynthia’s blog here, soon all of the left will begin losing rein on reality because of all the crap they have done. They fail to see truth where it is obvious.

Like you say, it’s not hard to understand. It’s just unpalatable.

Some People are stupid

April 15th, 2011
2:02 pm

Preciate you clarifying that age part.

So do you have that same animosity for citizens that don’t pay anything for healthcare?

On to the second point,I didn’t know you had to be illegal to get paid under the table, didn’t know you had to be illegal to not pay into SSI or Medicaid. The things you seem to think they would want to be illegal for are not solely benefits to being illegal. I can go stand out on South Cobb Drive and be a day-worker. Please, since I’m the short-sided one, name one benefit they get because they are illegal, that they couldn’t do if they were legal.

SO because it’s a problem with most Americans, it must be getting abused. Wow, then we have a lot of stuff that is getting abused because Americans have a lot of problems with a lot of things.

My last statement wasn’t misleading. You said instead of holding out for the 75k job, they should take a 50k job. So by your rationale, they would rather take 18k and wait on a 75k job, than to take a 50k job. If you really believe that. then ok.


April 15th, 2011
2:03 pm

We got off topic a little here, but the bottom line is that my grandparents paid into the system their entire life, so they should get taken care of for as long as they need it, and the people that haven’t paid in, shouldn’t get to benefit from it. End of story. It’s plain and simple, and no one on this Earth can tell someone that they don’t have the right to live, UNLESS they are a drain on society and commit crimes against innocent people, then you can allow those people to die. Funny enough, that Tucker probably doesn’t believe in the death penalty for multiple felons, murderers, molesters, and rapist, but she believes in killing off the old innocent civilians.

Really last word

April 15th, 2011
2:15 pm

How many children are on SSI! I worked w/a young mother (w/4 children w/multiply fathers) and she had a 4 year old child on SS! The child has asthma. How does one put into the system enough in this circumstance to warrant getting a benefit and yet there are those like CT who balk at senior citizens needing care late in their lives (who have paid all of their lives to be able to be cared for in the latter years).


April 15th, 2011
2:25 pm

“So would you be ok with EVERYONE paying a 20% flat income tax?”

You know, on its face it sounds fine…but then I step into reality and acknowledge that there are in fact people on the low end of the economic spectrum who simply cannot afford to pay any income taxes and still live. I sincerely doubt that any significant percentage of those folks own plasma TVs and eat bon-bons all day – there are “gamers” like there are in any imperfect system, but I think most folks “down there” are honestly struggling. In an ideal world, everyone “has skin in the game” by way of paying income taxes – in reality some folks, for whatever reason, can’t pay, but I won’t assume that makes them any less of a patriot than I am.

As far as the current tax system goes, I don’t like the EITC because if you want to give people welfare you need to do it through a program with appropriate safeguards and not based on a tax return – for example because child support is not taxable it is not taken into account, so you could have a mom with two kids getting $1k per month in support and still clearing $3.5k EITC based on her $25k income (she really gets $37k a year, doesn’t she, which would qualify her for an $800 EITC). How about we just do away with itemized deductions and go with a standard percentage for everyone – say, 12% of gross income is exempt? I paid off my house, so I don’t need the mortgage deduction – and personally don’t like the government using the tax system to manipulate social issues like home ownership and charitable giving. I think the current tax brackets are fine. I would be willing to pay a “rich person” tax if there is some way I could be assured that it would be used to pay down the deficit and not thrown at some voting bloc or special interest group AND the government got realistic about spending.

I want it back

April 15th, 2011
2:37 pm

When you pay into SS and Medicare all your working life. how is that an entiltlement? If your not going to live up to your part of the program, give me my money back.


April 15th, 2011
3:36 pm

I think we should spend less on those who have sex other than for reproduction. That makes as much sense as your comments about obesity and smoking.

No, it doesn’t. Other people having sex “other than for reproduction” costs taxpayers nothing. Smoking and obesity cost society millions of taxpayer dollars in healthcare costs. This is a proven fact.

What’s the matter? Don’t like it when adults enjoy themselves in the bedroom? Too bad. You a smoker, WillieBkind? Sounds like it. That would explain your ignorance.

I guess we can tell the old folks that “dying is part of living”!

Duh…it IS. I don’t understand why so many people are afraid of death–especially those who have lived a full life.

Why cannot we give serious consideration to the important issues that Ms. Tucker raises? Character attacks do not help us solve the fact that our country is bleeding to death in red ink. We have a system in which seniors can arrange to get a motorized wheelchair for any number of complaints when most of the time the really healthy choice would be getting up and down by themselves or with assistance from a family member or friend. We charge insurance or Medicare for all too expensive and worthless dietary supplements and proprietary medications which often are less effective than aspirin or placebo. Cutbacks in some of these programs are not only possible but desirable. We also need to address our failing schools-sometimes the problem is hunger, sometimes failed family care, sometimes weak schools. But the real issue is that our children are the future of this country and we older people (I am 80 and a doctor) need to put the brakes on our entitlement programs-we have had our chance.

Thank you for this. Very well said. As for your initial question, we can’t because most people who respond to this blog want to crucify Ms. Tucker. They hate her as badly as they do Obama. Why they read and respond, I do not know.

0311/0317 -1811/1801

April 15th, 2011
4:06 pm