America Needs “New Social Contract” to Balance Needs of Children and Seniors

WASHINGTON, DC –  The federal government must revise its social contract with the nation’s seniors and children to meet the needs of both generations without bankrupting the country, stated economist Isabel Sawhill in a speech today at the National Press Club. In a commentary on Sawhill’s remarks, social psychologist Kristin Moore of Child Trends noted that the budget crisis, aggravated by the aging of the baby boomers, is the single biggest children’s issue on the nation’s horizon, posing multiple challenges to young parents raising children and to programs that promote children’s development.


Sawhill, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, presented Child Trends’ first annual Kristin Anderson Moore Lecture, entitled “The Intergenerational Balancing Act: Where Children Fit in an Aging Society.”  Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, established the Lecture to focus national attention on important issues affecting the well-being of children and to honor Moore, who served as the organization’s president for 14 years. 


Sawhill compared America’s spiraling debt and its future impact on today’s children to “taking a jumbo mortgage out on your house but expecting your children to pay both the interest and the principal after you are dead. Anyone who did this would be considered an irresponsible parent. But that is exactly what we are doing as a nation.”


Moore added that a large national debt is limiting resources available to promote child and youth development “at the same time that a growing evidence base is identifying specific programs and interventions that have been proven to improve outcomes for children and youth.”


The Lecture coincides with increased political attention to issues affecting younger and older Americans. Congress and the President are locked in ongoing battle over SCHIP and No Child Left Behind; presidential candidates pledge to both protect the economic security of older Americans and provide universal health coverage and pre-kindergarten.  The next Congress and President will face critical decisions about how to resolve large and growing budget deficits and simultaneously meet the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.


Elements of a new social contract

Sawhill proposes rethinking the nation’s “social contract” between the old and the young to include:


  • Investing more resources in today’s children to make them more productive adults – but also expecting these future adults to save more of their income to pay for their own retirement. 
  • Investing more in people’s health and in encouraging healthy lifestyles at a young age in return for expecting Americans to pay a larger share of their own health care costs later in life.
  • Asking more affluent Americans to save more for their own retirement, so that social insurance programs could tilt more toward assisting the elderly who (1) experience a catastrophic or unexpected illness or disability, and (2) worked in lower-wage jobs for most of their lives and thus could not save enough to cover their retirement – and using the resulting savings to pay for greater investment in the young and to reduce the national debt.

Sawhill acknowledged that this large a policy transition would not be easy, but that, in the end, “it would lead to a much stronger nation.”


ABOUT CHILD TRENDS AND THE KRISTIN ANDERSON MOORE LECTURE:  Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children from pregnancy to the transition to adulthood.  Its mission is to improve outcomes for children by providing research, data, and analysis to the people and institutions whose decisions and actions affect children. The Kristin Anderson Moore Lecture, established by the Board of Directors and named for the organization’s immediate past president, is an annual event that focuses on current issues and their impact on America’s children. For more information, visit