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Age Discrimination--Against the Young : Entitlements: The average age of 'reformers' is 57.

August 07, 1994|JON COWAN and ROB NELSON | Jon Cowan and Rob Nelson are co-executive directors of Lead or Leave, a non-partisan advocacy organization for young people. and

On Monday, a little-noticed federal panel, the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, will release preliminary recommendations on how the government can limit the runaway growth of entitlement spending. However worthy the goals of the commission may be, the age and background of its members jeopardize its ability to produce meaningful or significant reforms.

Charged with redesigning America's entitlement programs to ensure their soundness and equity, the commission has completely shut out the group that will be most affected by its recommendations--the 130 million Americans under 35.

It is this post-Boomer cohort that will inherit the tab for Uncle Sam's current fiscal irresponsibility. It is these so-called Generations X and Y who face sharp tax increases and big benefit cuts if entitlement programs are not restructured to reflect changing demographic and economic realities. Current trends, for example, indicate that today's 27-year-old will pay $203,000 more in taxes than he receives in government benefits, compared with a 72-year-old, who will receive $98,600 more in benefits than he paid in.

Why such disparity? In 1939, when Social Security was created, there were 50 active workers to pay for each retiree. That ratio dropped to 20 to 1 by 1950 and will plummet to just 2 to 1 by 2025. To support this upside-down pyramid--and the more generous benefits of the past 50 years--workers born after 1960 can expect up to 40% of their future salaries to go to payroll taxes.

Despite the massive generational implications of our current system--and the changes contemplated in the health-care debate--the 32-member commission includes not a single member under 40. More than one-third of the members are over 60, and seven already qualify for Social Security. Members' average age is 57.

A commission on race relations would not have been established without any minority members, nor would a commission on church and state be set up without religious groups participating. Yet apparently no one felt that a commission on entitlements should include members of the generation that will pay for its reforms.

Instead of bringing in new and younger voices--including those who have proved their expertise on entitlements issues--the commission was made up principally of people who have consistently refused to support real entitlement reform: members of Congress. Three-quarters of the commission members are either current or former representatives. Many of the architects of the current entitlements crisis are now deciding how to "reform" the system.

In most cases, the congressional members of the commission are not the young fiscal reformers elected in recent years. They are entitlement war horses like former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill., 36 years in Congress), ranking Ways and Means minority member Bill Archer (R-Tex., 24 years in Congress) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich., 39 years in Congress.)

Monday's report is only preliminary; there is still time for the commission to add a few younger members before the final report in December. Generational fairness demands no less.

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