Are children consumption goods or our nation's future?

Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt says all U.S. children should receive free healthcare till age 22. He works up to his conclusion with a wonderful question. I wonder how the millions of “government-paid healthcare equals socialism” Americans would answer this question:

Do [Americans] view children as the human analogs of pets? Or do they view them, as do most Europeans and Asians, as precious national treasures? Perhaps a mixture of both?

This is not meant to be a frivolous question. Its answer informs the nation’s health policy.

If one views children primarily as the human analog of their parents’ pets, then it follows that children’s health care is primarily the parents’ financial responsibility, although one might extend public subsidies to very poor parents to help them care for their children adequately. On this view it is just and proper that, of two households with identical incomes, the one with children will have substantially less discretionary income after necessities than does the childless household.

On the other hand, if one views children as national treasures — and the nation’s economic future — then it makes sense to make the health care of children the financial responsibility of society as a whole, just as is the financing of public elementary and secondary education. Why treat children’s education as a social good, but their health care as a private consumption good?

The “children are our future” perspective is even more apt given the massive debt America is accumulating and the underfunding of future Social Security liabilities. The present generation is financing its present and future consumption on the backs of the next generation. Should we not at least be keeping them healthy as children so they can be our future in more than a slogan?

Posted by James on Friday, April 24, 2009