December 3, 2011

USA: Older people contribute more than they take

PORTLAND, Oregon / / December 3, 2011

The Stump - Oped
By Michael R. DeShane, Keren B. Wilson and Marvin Kaiser

It costs me $1 to ride the MAX. I get a free soft drink at Taco Bell. I get a lower airfare on Southwest Airlines. Most restaurants give me a special rate; indeed, I can eat for free at any senior meal site. Being over 55 or 65 brings all sorts of special benefits not available to younger people. Phil Knight can ride the MAX for a dollar, an unemployed office worker looking for a job can't. Gov. Kitzhaber can get a free Dr. Pepper at Taco Bell, a college student trying to pay tuition can't. Why? The only thing we older people had to do was live a long time. We didn't have to do anything to earn these benefits. We don't have to show that we have low income. We didn't have to serve our country. We only had to survive. And because of that we are "honored citizens" eligible for all sorts of benefits and discounts.

Happy Older Couple in Oregon. Illustrative photograph
By courtesy of Dermatology Associates, Tigard, Oregon

While there is not necessarily anything wrong with providing our elders with special dispensation, there is something more subtle going on that does a disservice both to older adults and to our society as a whole. Our elders are viewed as powerless, needy, worthy of an extensive array of services, prone to illness and as voters who only vote their own narrow interests; the facts, however, dispute these assumptions.

Myth #1: We are reliant upon our children to help us out. In fact, more money goes from older people to their grown children than the other way around. Indeed, recent analyses of intergenerational transfers estimate that, from 1998 to 2052, $41 trillion worth of wealth will transfer from older people to younger; and that is a low estimate. The transfer of money from the older to the young has increased dramatically during the recent economic downturn with many younger people dependent upon their elders to get by financially. In addition, older people contribute huge amounts of time volunteering for programs that support younger people; estimates from the Corporation for National and Community Service put the value of volunteer time at over $60 billion per year.

Concentrating only on the transfers from younger generations to the older leads to the perception that the elderly are a drain on the economy, in reality, they are a major contributor to it.

Myth #2: We worry only about the government messing with our Social Security. In fact we, more than most, realize the dangers of pitting the young against the old and understand that we must all share in the economic pain of high unemployment and decreased revenues. Sure we are concerned about Social Security and Medicare, but they are far from our only concerns.

Myth #3: We don't vote for school bond measures. While research is limited and the findings complex, a review of the research suggests that support for school bond measures actually tends to increase with the age of the voter. In fact, older voters are more likely to vote for many measures that benefit younger people. And we do so not just because of our grandchildren, but because we value a strong and effective educational system. We are not a "gray peril" voting against anything that doesn't support our own narrow interests. We are as concerned about the future as young people; perhaps more so.

The country is confronted with some serious financial difficulties as baby boomers move into old age in increasing numbers, and we should rightfully be concerned; but we must not look upon older people simply as recipients of government programs or as a nonproductive segment waiting to use up every benefit we can until we die. The facts about older people and their continuing involvement in the economic and social institutions are complicated, but most evidence suggests that elders are very likely to contribute more than they take.

We have been inundated with warnings of the coming social and financial crises that face us as the baby boomers enter old age. These reports look at the downside of an increasingly aged population, but might not this demographic tsunami be just as likely to provide substantial benefits to society? Boomers will likely stay involved by remaining in the labor force beyond retirement. They will embark on new careers and start new businesses; they will be providing volunteer service; most important, they will continue to provide social and financial support to their children and grandchildren. We must not discount the valuable contributions our seniors make to our society.

Michael R. DeShane is president of Concepts in Community Living Inc. Keren B. Wilson is president of the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation. Marvin Kaiser is CEO of Mary's Woods at Marylhurst and dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences at Portland State University.

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