Butts & James-Brown: Public Policy Must Consider Future Generations

Posted June 25, 2010 at 10:48am

The unfolding saga in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us of the danger of engaging in shortsighted practices, giving insufficient thought to long-term effects. As we reel from the damage wrought by the largest oil spill in American history, it is time to evaluate how we make our country’s most important decisions.

[IMGCAP(1)]Today, we are seeing visible evidence of the disastrous results that can occur when we embrace short-term gains without fully understanding potential long-term effects. Conscientious corporate plans and U.S. policies must account for the fact that all generations are connected; that today’s decisions will affect tomorrow’s children; that creating, and then canceling, federal policies can create ripples that will affect families far into the future.

In Washington, legislators are debating a plan that would similarly involve a short-term gain at the expense of long-term safety and security. As they grapple with the federal debt, members of President Barack Obama’s debt-reduction commission are considering breaking a promise made to all generations: the promise of Social Security.

This vital protection for families spans all ages, from infants to retirees. It pays more benefits to children than any other federal program, providing insurance to 98 percent of children in the tragic event they were to lose a parent. In 2005, 6.5 million American children received part of their family income from Social Security, which helped keep their family together. Severely disabled children and their family caregivers, families of fallen service members, and grandparents raising grandchildren all rely on these benefits.

Some economists have erroneously portrayed the Social Security debate as a showdown between the price of aging and the price of education. How unfortunate that both short-term business gains and cuts to Social Security come at the price of the compact between generations. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill shows the inherent danger in making decisions without fully understanding the risks. Punishing seniors by cutting benefits, or pitting children against elders, won’t work either. The policy decisions we make today spread across the decades. Today’s child is tomorrow’s grandparent.

If nothing else, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico teaches us that policy and business leaders must consider the following questions before making policy decisions: Does this decision take into account the needs and contributions of all generations? Does this decision see people as isolated actors, or within families? Does it protect the bonds between generations, or break them?

As new headlines appear daily and oil continues to gush, we must act now to create systemic change, making long-range planning a necessary element in national laws as well as environmental plans. Memories are short. Many people have forgotten that Social Security itself sprang up in a disaster, when older adults filled the streets during the Great Depression, searching for food and shelter. One of the most vocal supporters of an old-age pension was Dr. Francis Townsend, who looked out of his window during the Great Depression and saw three elderly women foraging for food in a trash can. Dr. Townsend started a grass-roots movement in support of governmental help for the elderly; “Townsend Clubs” sprang up across the country as people of all ages joined together to protect seniors.

Dr. Townsend’s advocacy helped bring about what we now know as Social Security. Always intended to be insurance across the life span, Social Security gradually expanded protections to all ages through disability and survivors benefits programs. It is a promise worth keeping for all generations.

Today, we are facing one of the biggest environmental disasters in history. In order to avoid disastrous long-term economic and educational effects in the future, we must thoughtfully plan to keep our obligations and promises to family members of all ages. Let us speak out against those who sacrifice long-term well-being for a balance sheet designed to impress Wall Street. Let us call out those who believe it is acceptable to diminish one generation in order to raise up another. Let us work to build a world that values and respects all generations.

Donna Butts is executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for intergenerational programs. Christine James-Brown is president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America and treasurer of Generations United.