What's A 'Fair Share?'

Sociologist Williamson's book presents range of views on the current Social Security debate

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The shape of the debate may change, but the argument over what constitutes a "fair share" of resources for the elderly is as old as history itself.

"Most any society, especially those near the margins, has had to deal with the issue of elderly dependents and what support, if any, they should receive from other generations," said Prof. John Williamson (Sociology). "It was a topic of great interest in ancient Greece and Rome, just as it was in the colonial era, when the point of contention centered around who would have control of the family farm."

Prof. John Williamson (Sociology) with Drucker Professor of Management Sciences Alicia Munnell, who wrote an essay for the book. "We selected a number of the most articulate and influential people on either side of the debate to contribute to this book," he said. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
With financial problems facing Social Security and Medicare, and the prospect of a large elderly population helping to drive the current "fair share" debate in America, Williamson and two colleagues have edited a forthcoming collection of essays they hope will illuminate the discussion. Titled The Generational Equity Debate , the book's contributors include leading economists, sociologists, political scientists and other experts.

The essays, while representing a spectrum of opinion, are grouped according to their support for two opposing viewpoints: generational equity - a balancing of needs between the elderly and other age groups, with less public spending on seniors in relation to children and young adults - and generational interdependence, which argues against such a division.

Although Williamson falls into the latter group, he says the anthology's purpose is to enlighten, not polarize.

"We felt an effective way to deal with the issue of generational equity would be to present the balance of views on the subject," said Williamson, whose co-editors were Diane Watts-Roy, a doctoral student in sociology, and Eric Kingson, a former Graduate School of Social Work faculty member now teaching at Syracuse University.

"To accomplish this, we selected a number of the most articulate and influential people on either side of the debate to contribute to this book," he said. "Their articles, on the whole, are written for a general audience and should give readers a very useful orientation on the major tenets of the generational equity debate."

Williamson wrote one essay with Watts-Roy and another with Kingson. Drucker Professor of Management Sciences Alicia Munnell contributed a piece stating that Social Security's financial problems have been exaggerated and can be solved through modest changes. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow, Concord Coalition President Peter G. Peterson and former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm also contributed essays.

In addition, the book presents two "Generation X" perspectives in the form of position papers by two organizations: the Third Millennium, a non-profit educational and advocacy group calling for the end of Social Security; and the 2030 Center, which sees Social Security as a model for collective responsibility between generations that must be preserved and modernized.

The book's scheduled April release may well coincide with a new debate prompted by President Clinton's recent proposal to shore up Social Security and Medicare through projected budget surpluses, invest some Social Security funds in the stock market, and create "USA" retirement accounts for taxpayers.

"Basically, Clinton's plan has been supported by the generational interdependence framers," said Williamson. "The generational equity advocates in general want to take Social Security and set up individual accounts, and Clinton comes close to that - but not all the way.

"In any case, there are some substantial gaps left to be filled by what are likely to be unpopular moves, such as tax raises or cutting benefits," he said. "The question will be, who's going to do it - Clinton or Congress?"

Return to Feb. 4 menu

Return to Chronicle home page