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KEY QUESTION: What are the current sentiments of Americans toward assisting the elderly? Have Americans, particularly the young, become less inclined in recent years to help them?
KEY CONCEPTS: ageism, intergenerational conflict
KEY SOURCES OF DATA: 2004 General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION: Answer the polling questions below, which were modified from the General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, and compare your responses to those of your peers.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Please click on the response that best reflects your opinion:
INTRODUCTION: It is commonly asserted that ageism is pervasive in America. Presumably, we place great value on youth, while devaluing that which is aging or old. Sociologists have long maintained that Americans, in general, are likely to hold the elderly in low esteem and to view them through decidedly negative stereotypes (old-fashioned, stubborn, inept, feeble, etc.). Moreover, some sociologists have observed that, in recent years, Americans have become increasingly resentful of providing financial assistance to the elderly. For example, predictions are now common that significant intergenerational conflict will soon characterize our society in coming decades as younger people become hard pressed to support that large cohort of aging "baby boomers" through burdensome Social Security taxes. (See page 373-375 in the Henslin text.)
While certainly plausible, we must ask if available empirical evidence does, in fact, support these assertions about the growing resistance, especially among younger Americans, toward helping the elderly
DATA ANALYSIS: Tables in this section report data for the only relevant indicators that could be found in the large survey, representative of the U.S. adult population, that is conducted each year, the General Social Survey. Positions favoring assistance to the elderly are indicated by responses that sharing a house with a grown child is a "good idea" and that "too little" is being spent on Social Security.
Inspection of Table 1 clearly shows that Americans have not become increasingly negative toward providing the elderly assistance. Significantly more respondents reported that sharing a home with an aging parent was a "good idea" in the 1990s than in the 1970s (although the proportion agreeing was slightly higher in the early 1980s). Indeed, only a minority of respondents supported the idea in the 1970s, whereas by the 1980s and the past decade, the majority of respondents endorsed it. However, support is beginning to decline as noted in the 2004 numbers. Likewise, public support for Social Security has shown no sign of declining since the question was first asked in 1984. Indeed, a greater proportion of respondents agreed in 2004 that "too little" was being spent than in earlier survey years.
TABLE 1. Trends in Attitudes toward Assistance for the Elderly, 1973 to 2004
|Social Security $|
Table 2 describes the distribution of favorable attitudes in 2004 across selected demographic variables. As shown, those who indicated that sharing a home with an elderly parent was a "good idea" were relatively similar in most respects, although college-educated and younger respondents were considerably more apt than others to say that it is a "good idea." The fact that respondents 50 years and older had the lowest proportion of endorsement is noteworthy and somewhat ironic. For the other indicator, women, blacks, and those with less education and income were most likely to report that Social Security payments to the elderly were "too little." Older respondents again were much less supportive, having a low rate of agreement with this position.
TABLE 2. Favorable Attitudes toward Assisting the Elderly by Selected Demographic Variables, 2004 (percents responding that sharing home is a "good idea" and that Social Security spending is "too little")
|Variable||Sharing Home||Social Security $|
|High school graduate||49.2||70.2|
|High school graduate<||48.4||69.8|
|Sample N||> 581||> 1817|
Given the prominence of race and class (income/education) in relation to attitudes about Social Security spending, multivariate analysis was performed to determine whether the high rate of black endorsement for greater spending was more a function of their disproportionate distribution in lower socioeconomic categories than a function of race. Analysis clearly indicates that this was not the case: regardless of income, blacks were far more likely than whites to report that current Social Security payments provided the elderly "too little" money. (See Table 3.)
TABLE 3. Percent Agreeing that Social Security Pays "Too Little" by Race and Income Status, 2004 (N=1689)