A $250 Donation Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — This story begins, as do so many dramas, at the box office. We are standing in line, three generations defined by a three-tier price structure: senior, adult, child.

This provokes yet another rant from the eldest on the subject of senior discounts. Why, I ask again, should the “adult” who carries the financial burden of raising the “child” be charged more than her gainfully employed “senior”? Can’t elders at least be offered the option of donating our senior discounts to some junior cause?

I repeat this dialogue and plot because my box office encounter occurred days after President Obama asked Congress to allocate $250 to the 57 million beneficiaries of Social Security and other federal entitlement programs, regardless of our income. This one-time special was framed as a way to compensate for the fact that older Americans won’t get a cost-of-living increase in their 2010 checks. “Even as we seek to bring about recovery,” said the president, “we must act on behalf of those hardest hit by this recession.”

Well, sure, but let’s go to the numbers. This will be the first time in 34 years that seniors won’t find a raise in their checks. We are not getting a cost-of-living increase for one simple reason: The cost of living has decreased. The checks that rose 5.8 percent last year — largely on energy costs — are already buying more this year.

As for the idea that those on Social Security were “hardest hit” by the recession, not so fast. There’s evidence that older Americans suffered fewer mortgage foreclosures. They were no more affected by the stock market meltdown than other age groups, and retirees were obviously less affected by unemployment. And while, yes, they were hit by rising health care costs, were they hit harder than, say, citizens with no health insurance?

I’m not in the business of fomenting generational warfare. My own box office story ended with a modest generational transfer of income in the form of tickets. Nor do I believe in greedy geezers. But this is a $250 moment.

There is no question that some of the neediest Americans are elderly, especially single women. But age is not the same as income. Indeed, poverty among the elderly has gone down from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2008. Today, elders are half as likely to be poor as are children.

So, why exactly would we give $250 to every senior at every income while poor children remain in deep trouble? How do we justify the transfer of $13 billion or $14 billion to seniors?

There are similar proposals in Congress where it is an article of faith that you never go wrong pleasing the elderly. Obama may be wooing a population that is least supportive of health care reform. But this is part of the same problem.

The president has long talked about “responsibility,” especially among children. By 2030, about 20 percent of Americans will be over 65. What are we asking of them? To be nothing but passive recipients of entitlement? Is their only social responsibility to remain financially independent of their children?

The word senior already stretches over four decades of life. Social security checks go out to people who fought in World War II and people who were born in World War II. The first baby boomers are getting Social Security. Boomers have long been seen as the great change agents of America, ushering in one social movement after another. But there’s a real risk that they could become an I’ve-got-mine resistance.

I’ve always thought that elders were the ones designated by society to take the long view — back to the past and forward to a future when we won’t even be around. In that long view, caring flows down the generations.

Now we face this tiny but telling test. The $250 moment. Wouldn’t it be something if those of us on Social Security looked this particular gift horse in the mouth and said no to the Congress? And if a check arrives in the mail, wouldn’t it be something if elders who are able, endorsed it to schools that are meagerly training the next generation of Social Security supporters?

Oh, did I mention that the movie we saw was “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”? The preview for this country is “Aging With a Chance of Bankruptcy.” And it’s not just the box office treating seniors like children.