We Can Help America’s Children by Leveraging the “Awwww” Factor

I’m a big fan of Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton and currently Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. I think he speaks for families and the middle class and he expresses the values I think are important in our country. In a recent article in at Salon.com entitled, Does America Hate Its Children?, Reich described the ways our country shows that children are a low priority: increasing rates of poverty, increasing health problems, and programs for children including education, school lunches, Head Start that will be cut if we “go over the cliff”. He then listed some of the special interests that intervene to make themselves the priority rather than children — the NRA and big corporations and the wealthy and advertisers and marketers.

Oddly enough, he included the AARP and seniors in that list. (And he didn’t include the Defense Department).

Now, I’m not all that fond of the AARP. On several occasions the organization’s policy wing has undermined progressive attempts to protect Social Security. The AARP is like that wobbly stool you step on never being sure whether it’s steady enough to hold you. But that lack of reliability hurts seniors more than it hurts children and means seniors aren’t as fully protected from cuts to their programs as Reich implies. Yet, by including seniors with the moneyed interests and the NRA (which is actually also a moneyed interest), Reich implies that they are similar to the other members of this self-promoting group even though he says “we shouldn’t have to choose between our seniors and children.”

So let’s talk about children vs. seniors, and how I believe seniors could be the key to changing the support services children get in our country.

Kids have a power that is not true of any other group. I call it the “awww” factor. It’s the same reaction that people have to puppies and kittens. They’re just so damn cute. And this awww factor is leveraged in various ways, sometimes for children but just as often for someone else. So the pre-school my severely disabled child attended was part of a much larger non-profit that provided services to people with disability of all ages, the majority of whom were adults. The organization leveraged the awww factor of its youngest clients by using them in all the fundraising photos. Disabled three-year-olds can be excruciatingly cute; disabled 50-year-olds — not so much.

Republicans leverage the appeal of children when talking about the deficit — they don’t want this unconscionable debt passed on to their children, so obviously we have to cut services for children to protect our children.

The anti-abortion forces leverage the awww factor with photos of fetuses — they use the iconic photo from that book all pregnant moms look at (A Child is Born) that’s essentially a head-shot of a fetus sucking its thumb — a fetus at 20 weeks of development. Definite awww factor. But they don’t use the photos of an embryo that looks like a kidney bean, or an embryo a couple inches long that reminds everyone of a weird unpleasant undersea critter.

Amazingly, sometimes the awww factor is even used to benefit real living children: passing the Children’s Health Insurance Program was partly accomplished with a poster suggesting the choice was between cute four-year-old Joey and Joe Camel (since the funding was coming from a cigarette tax). And the recent horrific massacre of children in Connecticut may lead to laws that protect all of us more, including children.

Seniors have no awww factor. What they do have is high rates of voter registration and high rates of voting. You can count on those old folks to vote. And that gives them some power.

That power brought them Social Security which has brought their poverty rate down from 35% in 1959 to less than 9% in 2011. And it’s brought them a single-payer, government-administered health insurance program called Medicare. Only 1.7% of the elderly are uninsured (compared to 9.7% of children under age 19). And what it’s brought even more, is the maintenance of both Social Security and Medicare as viable programs for seniors.
So does that make Robert Reich right? Are seniors the same kind of special interest as corporations and advertisers and marketers and the NRA, taking for themselves and leaving children with less?

This is when we get into arguing over the crumbs. You know that joke that was going around during the height of Occupy Movement? A CEO, a Tea Party member and a union member sit at a table, with 12 cookies on a plate. The CEO grabs 11 cookies and tells the Tea Party member, “You better watch that union guy. He wants your cookie.” I would suggest here that the CEO with 11 out the 12 cookies is telling the senior citizen to protect that cookie from that kid and telling the child to protect their cookie from that old coot (in Alan Simpson’s inimitable words). And that’s the scenario Reich is offering by plunking those seniors in with the wealth, corporate and defense industry lobbyists.

Here are the facts on seniors: If you look at graphs of poverty for different age groups you see all age groups had a decline in poverty from 1959 until about 1970. The difference is that for seniors it started out as the group with the highest rate of poverty. With the help of Social Security, that rate declined until seniors became the age group with the lowest poverty rate. Children, who had a poverty rate second only to the elderly in 1959 now have the highest rate, not because seniors took anything away from children but because, as a country, we chose to do something about seniors but not about children. But while we brought their poverty rates way way down, not all seniors are well off. One-third of all seniors have incomes below 200% of poverty. For an elderly couple in 2012, that means an income of less than $30,000 year.

As for health insurance, we did get a little awww factor help for children. Almost four in ten children get health insurance through the federal government (Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a small percentage through military coverage). So, yeah, while children have almost six times the rate of uninsuredness as seniors, other age groups have it worse than kids: more than a quarter of people ages 19 to 34 years old are uninsured, 16 times the rate for seniors, but also almost three times the rate for children. So we did choose to make things a bit better for children.

I think we should use what we did for seniors as both a guide and an assist to doing more for children. First we should consider the overlaps between benefits for seniors and benefits for children. Almost five million children live in families that receive Social Security benefits — that’s 7% of children under 18. A lot of those children are being raised by grandparents (or by parents who are seniors — for example, my husband!) and Social Security is supporting not only those seniors but also children.

Medicare covers more than half a million children. And Medicaid, which is of crucial importance to about 30 million children, can’t as easily be cut because it can’t be passed off as a program for shiftless poor people and welfare queens when the vast majority of expenditures for Medicaid are for elderly people and disabled people. (Only 25% of Medicaid expenditures are for children including children with disabilities). So the elderly voting power protects programs that benefit seniors, yes, but also benefit children.

We need to use the awww factor and enlightened self-interest to convince seniors that taking care of children is a great idea. We need to leverage the elderly’s voting power to benefit children. We should remind seniors that the ten-year-old of today becomes the person paying into the Social Security trust fund in eight to ten years. 65-year-olds are going to need that child to grow into a healthy, educated adult if they want their Social Security payments to continue when they hit their late 70’s.

Another idea is to build on the successful programs for seniors and extend them to children. Politicians gain seniors’ votes by promising to strengthen Medicare. Well, one of the best ways to do that is to include healthier people in the risk pool. Who’s healthier than a normal child? So allow families with children to buy into Medicare. Why should insurance companies make a profit off of premiums from young families when those premiums could benefit our seniors and still be cheaper than what families pay for health insurance in the private market?

The interests of seniors and children don’t need to collide or compete — improvement in programs for one can be a boost to the other. We need to stop fighting over the last cookie and start demanding that both seniors and children get their fair share of the whole plate of cookies. The awww power and the voting bloc power can help each other.

Guest contributor Marti Teitelbaum lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the mother of two high-energy girls (a twenty-something future radical social worker and a 12-year-old with teenhood aspirations) and is married to a psychiatrist who devotes half his work life to a child mental health clinic. For almost 20 years, Marti used her degree in public health to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, producing most of their numbers on children’s health, disability, health insurance, Medicaid, and immunization. She has always been a political junkie and a fiberholic and now, for the first time in her life, has the time to indulge in both of these addictions. Politics and weaving have a lot in common: both take a lot of thought and preparation and both have a lot of complicated entanglements. But the difference is that weaving calms the soul and produces something useful and potentially beautiful. Politics doesn’t.

Image via iStockPhoto/Ben Lin

  • helen

    thank you for this insightful look at how America should pool it’s needs and resources to do the right thing for all of our citizens. The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow and the elderly of the day after. Our retirees have the time to lead and help make these connections if they are not worried about their next meal or prescription. And if there is one thing that is true, the lawmakers of today are the elderly of tomorrow because the alternative is much worse.

    • Marti Teitelbaum

      Thanks Helen. I really get annoyed when I hear people pit seniors against children. With so much money going to defense contractors and tax cuts for the wealthy, we should know better than to blame one vulnerable group for the lack of services for another vulnerable group.

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