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April, 2000, Vol. 123, No. 4
Economic and social conditions of children and the elderly
David Scott Johnson
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
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.)
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1 1998 State of the World Population: THE NEW GENERATIONS (New York, NY, United Nations Population Fund, United Nations, 1998).
2 S. Preston, "Children and the Elderly: Divergent Paths for America’s Dependents," Demography, 1984, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 435–57.
3 See, for example, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-being (Washington, Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics,1999); J. Palmer, T. Smeeding, and B. B. Torrey, The Vulnerable (Washington, The Urban Institute Press, 1988); and A Profile of Older Americans: 1997 (Washington, U.S. Administration on Aging, 1998).
4 America’s Children: Key National Indicators, 1999.
Related BLS programs
Current Population Survey
Related Monthly Labor Review articles
What does it mean to be poor in America?—May 1996.
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