Economic and Social Conditions of Children and the Elderly

By Johnson, David Scott | Monthly Labor Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Economic and Social Conditions of Children and the Elderly


Johnson, David Scott, Monthly Labor Review


Both the elderly and children have experienced improvements in their health status, but do not share the same enhancements in economic well-being; data for the elderly are compared with data from a recent report on indicators of child well-being

Over the past four decades, the proportion of children in the U.S. population has fallen from 36 percent (in 1960) to 26 percent (in 1998), and is expected to drop to approximately 24 percent in 2020. (See chart 1.) Over the same period, in contrast, the share of elderly persons has risen from about 9 percent of the population to 13 percent, and is projected to increase to 16 percent by 2020. The 1998 United Nations World Population report shows that these changes in composition are occurring throughout the world.(1)

[Chart 1 OMITTED]

As these populations of children and the elderly have changed, so have their economic and social circumstances. Based on many socioeconomic measures, the elderly today are as well off as, and perhaps better off than, the nonelderly. It is important to note that socioeconomic measures for the elderly are better than those for children. The data also show that children are an increasing fraction of the poor, despite the reduction in family size. A 1984 study first noted this trend.(2) Since that time, several authors have revisited this issue and found that the elderly are better off economically than are children (as measured by, for example, relative family incomes) and also are better off in noneconomic ways as well, such as improved health insurance coverage.(3)

This article expands on previous studies, and provides a wider range of socioeconomic indicators to compare the status of the elderly and children. It uses a report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-being, 1999, which presents 23 indicators of "child well-being and six population and family background measures.(4) The report examines the trends during the past two decades. These indicators are monitored through official Federal statistics covering children's economic security, health, behavior, social environment, and education. They were chosen because they are easy to understand, objectively based on reliable data, and measured regularly. Also, they represent large segments of the population from infancy to age 18 and a balanced mix of the "well-being" domain. For the elderly, this article uses studies similar to those used to compile the data for America's Children to develop socioeconomic indicators by which to compare with the data for children. (See notes to table 1.)

Table 1. Socioeconomic indicators for children and the elderly, selected years between 1980 and 1998

                                                Early period
         Description of indicator
           or characteristic
                                             Year        Value
In millions
  Children(1)                                1980         63.7
  Elderly(2)                                 1980         25.7
In percent
  Children(1)                                1980         28.0
  Elderly(2)                                 1980         11.0

    Racial and ethnic
      origin (in percent)

Children:
  White, non-Hispanic(1)                     1980         74.0
  Black, non-Hispanic(1)                     1980         15.0
  Hispanic(1)                                1980          9.0
Elderly:
  White, non-Hispanic(2)                     1980         88.0
  Black, non-Hispanic(2)                     1980          8.0
  Hispanic(2)                                1980          3.0

    Family structure (in percent)

Children living with two parents(1)          1980         77.0
Children living with one parent(1)           1980         20.0
Children living with grandparents(3)         1980          3.6
Elderly living with spouses                  1980         53.6
  Men                                         --           --
  Women                                       --           --
Elderly living alone or                      1980         32. … 

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