"Traditionally in America, the people most likely to be poor were the elderly. As recently as 1966, for example, 29 percent of Americans over 65 were below the poverty line, compared with only 18 percent of American children.
But that same year, Medicare took effect to provide medical care for the elderly, and Social Security adjustments steadily reduced poverty among them. We were suitably embarrassed that old people were eating cat food or scavenging garbage cans for food, so we reallocated resources to the elderly.
As of 2003, the share of elderly below the poverty line had fallen by two-thirds to 10 percent - representing a huge national success. Retirement in America is no longer feared as a time of destitution, but anticipated as a time of comfort and leisure.
On the other hand, the proportion of children below the poverty line is still 18 percent, the same as it was in 1966. And while almost all the elderly now have health insurance under Medicare, about 29 percent of children had no health insurance at all at some point in the last 12 months.
One measure of how children have tumbled as a priority in America is that in 1960 we ranked 12th in infant mortality among nations in the world, while now 40 nations have infant mortality rates better than ours or equal to it. We've also lost ground in child vaccinations: the United States now ranks 84th in the world for measles immunizations and 89th for polio.
With boomers about to retire, I'm afraid that national priorities will be focused even more powerfully on the elderly rather than the young - because it's the elderly who wield political clout.
"The elderly are retired, and it's easier to get them to go to rallies or write their congresspeople," notes Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "Children can't vote, don't give money and have no power, and neither do their parents."
We boomers are also preying on children in a more insidious way: We're running up their debts, both by creating new entitlement programs and by running budget deficits today. Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist and fiscal expert who with Scott Burns wrote the excellent and scary book "The Coming Generational Storm," calls this "fiscal child abuse."