The age divide in where Americans want their tax dollars spent

With the U.S. Midterm Elections coming up, it’s time again to rally your friends and family to fulfill their civic duty at the voting booths on November 4th. Considering the possibility that the Senate will flip parties, this will be a particularly important election to vote in.

Coincidentally, I’ve been working with the UT Energy Poll on their latest poll for the past month, and I’ve had the chance to preview the issues that Americans think are important in this upcoming election. This nationally representative poll asks Americans the question, “Where is it most important for the U.S. government to spend your tax dollars?,” and they’re given 8 options:

  • Education
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Health care
  • Infrastructure development/maintenance
  • Job creation
  • Military and defense
  • Social Security

We then break the answers down by various categories such as gender, political affiliation, level of education, etc. to see where Americans differ — and agree — in opinion. One of the most striking disparities in opinion revealed itself when we looked at the responses by age:

us-age-most-impt-gov-spending

Percentages are the % of respondents in that age bracket

The divide in priorities between young and old Americans couldn’t be clearer: Older Americans overwhelmingly want their tax dollars spent on Social Security, military, and defense, whereas younger millennials prefer to see their tax dollars invested in job creation and education.

This data adds to the pile of data demonstrating the growing divide between millennials and older generations. It seems that the millennial vs. older generation conflict reaches far beyond the working your way through college debate: millennials are tired of war-mongering in foreign countries and want to see those tax dollars invested at home instead, whereas their parents and grandparents are content to maintain the status quo as long as their own retirement is taken care of.

With the tendency for 65+ year olds to turn out to vote far more than younger Americans, this divide could spell serious trouble for millennials who are struggling to find a job and pay off their college debt. Add in the fact that nearly half of the Senate falls into the 65+ age category and it’s really no wonder that millennials feel vastly underrepresented in politics.

Want to change the status quo? Get out to vote on November 4th.

Dr. Randy Olson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. As a member of Prof. Jason H. Moore's research lab, he studies biologically-inspired AI and its applications to biomedical problems.

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  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    (Interestingly, only one of those four broad areas of spending are actually listed in the federal constitution as belonging to U.S. federal jurisdiction.)

    • drstoneer

      This is not true.
      The preamble of the constitution say and I’m copy pasting here:
      “provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, … ”
      And article one, section 8 of the constitution say:
      “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”
      So, clearly the constitution warranty not only defence but welfare (social security and jobs) as well as education: (science and art)
      Read it, it is the best document ever written by mankind.

      • Frank Ch. Eigler

        You should realize that an interpretation of “general welfare” that is broad enough to encompass any social-oriented spending is a quite controversial one. It was that way even at the time of the founding of the country.

        • Nick

          Rofl, “You should realize”, how smug can you be? But then again, the stupid are cocksure. As if anyone without an agenda would actually interpret ‘general welfare’ as anything other than social constructs. It’s pathetic how the older generation wants to hold onto a 300 year old document and play a game of ‘lets be the pedant’. The issues are in front of our faces and once the baby boomers die off we might be able to address them rather than listening to the drill that comes from their mouths.

          • Frank Ch. Eigler

            So on one hand, you think the constitution justifies any sort of social spending. On the other hand, it’s just a 300 year old document that only old pedants worry about. Do you see how holding both those views is a wee bit paradoxical?

          • Joe

            It is ironic that you think so little of that 227 year old document when that same document allows you to speak your ignorance without fear of government repercussions. That same document prevents you from having your house searched without a warrant and you from getting thrown in jail for sounding like the uneducated person you are. I wonder how different your mind would change if you were in Russia, Vietnam or Cuba and ended up needing those rights that 227 year old document provides you.

          • Nick

            Frank; no, I don’t see how it’s paradoxical. I can comment on the contents of the bible while not being Christian as well. You reworded and misrepresented my argument in your first two sentences as well. This is hilarious to watch you try and argue, you can’t even comprehend my statements correctly.

            Joe, you sound paranoid. I don’t care about your strawman.

          • Andrew W Sprague

            What you said was a paradox. Because simply Social Security is the problem. These benefits go to the older generations. In the same argument or thought you say that the older generation uses the constitution to say we shouldn’t have social welfare when in fact the social welfare going to people 65+ is the problem. But in fact it wasn’t you that created this paradox. The older generations who complain about food stamps while bankrupting our country are the paradox with Social Security is the paradox. I read that in 1950 ~55+ people used 30% of total US resources. Today that number is nearly 60%. I am a college student and on my last W2 it read about 14,000. Let me tell you I am certainly not using too much resourves because I cannot. Yet these people who got 20$ minimum wage in 1960 (due to inflation) actually have the gall to tell me who currently makes 14$ that “we” the baby boomers worked for our money etc… On top of that usually around 100$ is taken out per check for Social Security. I am just speaking about the paradox we are in. I am very frugal and good with my money, I spent years before going to school as a Chef, I am lucky to have the skills I do to get by and I do get by pretty easily. Anyways that is my point of view on it. Also I tend to be pretty fiscally conservative/socially liberal. This is why the current American conservative party just keeps blowing my mind literally with their support of the military and social security. Don’t even pretend that the average Republican wouldn’t fight for Social Security when the old people start harassing them in droves.

        • Pacifus

          Parts of the Constitution were written to be deliberately vague on certain points. This is one. Exactly what constitutes “general welfare” and what doesn’t (and is therefore reserved for the states) was a contentious issue when the ink was still wet.

        • mrblaze

          Controversial sure, just as the issue of national defense was at the time along with the arguments surrounding the 2A and militias. I remember GW saying something about foreign entanglements as well. All the same, the Constitution specifically says that the federal government has a role in promoting the general welfare of it’s citizenry which completely invalidates you argument that only defense was listed as such.

      • Carl

        I’ve read it. It’s impressive for its day, but it has its share of logical fallacies and contradictions.

        The phrase “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” is specifically in reference to giving the Congress the power to enact a system of copyright. To further that goal, the legislative body is allowed to do this one specific thing.

        It doesn’t actually say that the general purpose of the federal government is science, art, or education.

        I’m guessing that the people who answered “education” in this survey were *not* picking that because they wanted the U.S. federal government increase the U.S. Copyright Office’s budget.

      • Olson

        I hope you’re kidding. Else, you’re really in need of a book.

    • mrblaze

      Fascinating, it’s funny how some folks ignore “promote the general welfare” when citing this “fact”.

    • Robert Bostick

      It is an operational fact of our Federal system of payments that Federal taxes pay for absolutely nothing. The same is true of the borrowing function.

      1. http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2014/01/diagrams-dollars-modern-
      money-illustrated-part-1.html

      2. http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2014/01/diagrams-dollars-modern-
      money-illustrated-part-2.html

      “The reason is the underlying reality of what a U.S. Dollar actually is: It is simply a promise, by the U.S. sovereign government, that it will accept the Dollar as payment for a Dollar’s worth of taxes. That’s it. A Dollar—whether it’s a paper Dollar or an “electronic” Dollar—is nothing more than that promise. The sovereign government doesn’t promise to exchange a Dollar for gold or silver, or for anything else of intrinsic value. It promises only to accept the Dollar in exchange for the cancellation of a Dollar’s worth of taxes due. In other words, a Dollar is the I.O.U. of the sovereign government. The Dollar says: “I owe you one Dollar’s worth of tax credit.”

      The second thing the underlying reality explains is why the Dollar is “destroyed” when it is used to pay U.S. Taxes. You give the Federal Government back its I.O.U., the FG declares your taxes paid, and the I.O.U. is cancelled. That I.O.U. is of no further use to the Federal Government. It is illogical for the FG to “keep” an I.O.U. that says it owes something to itself. It could recycle the I.O.U. and use it to buy new goods and services from the Private Sector. But even that is illogical, because it is far easier and more efficient, when the Sovereign Government needs to spend again, for it to simply issue a new I.O.U. This is especially true since the vast majority of Dollars issued and spent are electronic—simple keystrokes on a computer screen.” (J. D. Alt)

      Therefore, while there exists reams of legislation supporting the meme “tax payer funded”, taxes for revenue are obsolete. (Ruml, 1946, http://home.hiwaay.net/~becraft/RUMLTAXES.html

      In our monetarily sovereign system the Federal government is not resource constrained to spend. During a recession or weak aggregate demand there are only politically imposed constraints. on government spending.

      Any government issuing a non-convertible, fiat currency, with a flexible exchange rate and all of its debt in its own currency never, involuntarily, faces a solvency risk. To complete the act of spending, therefore, our government only needs a Congressional appropriation, not revenue.

      http://web.archive.org/web/20150905222740/http://neweconomicperspectives.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/alt21.png

      All benefit payments are from the Treasury’s General Fund Account, not Trust Funds, which are nothing more than spreadsheets recording assets/liabilities — credits/debits. A SS Trust Fund with a zero balance would not preclude payment of benefits nor would there be a need to rob Peter to pay Paul.

    • Robert Bostick

      While there exists reams of legislation supporting the meme “tax payer funded”, taxes for revenue are obsolete. (Ruml, 1946, http://home.hiwaay.net/~becraft/RUMLTAXES.html

      The poll is based on a false premise. Federal Taxes Pay for Absolutely Nothing. America is a Monetarily Sovereign nation and by definition never depends on revenue per se to spend.

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  • Henk Doorlag

    “millennials are tired of war-mongering in foreign countries and want to see those tax dollars invested at home instead”

    isn’t it more likely this is just a difference between the old and young in general? what did the 65+ bracket think 40 years ago? doesn’t it stand to reason that when you’re just starting out you have a more idealistic approach to life. Live and let live, Sharing is the new Buying. Also, they just got out of the education system and clearly remember every thing wrong with it.
    The older generation has spend decades working hard to improve their lives (and that of their offspring), and are more concerned with keeping what they’ve earned, and getting what they payed for.

    Also, the percentages don’t add to 100%. I assume the rest is the “other” category, and the categories are not equal. 55-64 is just 9 years, 35-54 is 19 years. I understand wanting to show the crazy divide between generations, but I think the difference is a lot more gradual than this suggests.

    • Zach

      I would also love to know that. I wonder if young people now will care less about social security when they’re older. I’m personally planning for no government help when I’m old, assuming the system will be gone. So it should *hopefully* be less of a concern for me. My mother, on the other hand…

      • Voice of reason

        Social security stopped being a viable choice in the 1980’s and the only reason it is not being replaced with a better system is because every time someone try’s to replace it the other guy runs a ” progressive opponents name wants to get rid of your social security” campaign and fails to mention that social security is broken.

        • mikee

          Yeah, GW Bush (progressive?!) really got hammered by all the non-prog Democrats (non-prog?!) when GW Bush tried to fix SocSec.

          Wait, Bush was a neoliberal chickenhawk conservative, and Dems are the progressive opponents who block SocSec reform every time anyone tries to fix it.

          Reality is a clear problem for you.

        • Robert Bostick

          Social Security can never, involuntarily, be broken, bankrupt, out of money, broke, insolvent.

          Why not? I’m glad you asked. All you need do is look up the definition of Monetary Sovereignty for the definitive answer.

          To make a short read even shorter here’s the essence of it: Because the U.S. issues its own currency, ex nihilo, it nor any of its expenditures need go unfunded. It does not need to tax or borrow or impose austerity to pay for its expenditures. It does so today for political not economic/financial reasons.

    • Gabe Harris

      The last two presidents promised to do LESS warmongering….Obama started plenty of new bombing campaigns….democrats don’t liek to call that warmongering but it seems pretty clear to me.

      Bush said he wanted to have a more modest foreign policy and NOT engage in nation building….of course he was lying and US foreign policy comes from a much darker place that presidential campaign speeches …but at the time you’d have thought that he was a terrible person for saying it if you listened to the democrats screaming he was a dirty rotten “isolationist”.

      Truth is that either traditional party is filled to the rim with warmongerers and the higher up the chain of command you go the worse the interventionist tendencies.

      • Earl E. Byrd

        Right wing, left wing… same bird.

    • Also, the percentages don’t add to 100%. I assume the rest is the “other” category, and the categories are not equal. 55-64 is just 9 years, 35-54 is 19 years. I understand wanting to show the crazy divide between generations, but I think the difference is a lot more gradual than this suggests.

      That’s correct – I’m only showing half of the 8 categories here. The remainder of the categories are comparatively low to these 4 categories.

    • drstoneer

      This is not true.
      The preamble of the constitution say and I’m copy pasting here:
      “provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, … ”
      And article one, section 8 of the constitution say:
      “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”
      So, clearly the constitution warranty not only defence but welfare (social security and jobs) as well as education: (science and art)
      Read it, it is the best document ever written by mankind.

    • Andrew W Sprague

      I do agree with a lot of what you are saying. But consider this statistic I read, again a statistic, but none the less relevant. 1950 the older generations used ~30% of goods. Today it is around 60%. Which you can pretty much chalk up to baby boomers gaining wealth. Which is not a bad thing but when Social Security was created I don’t think this was an issue. The fact that ones who are supposed to be getting the benefits are the ones who hold a majority of the wealth in the country is essentially an issue here. Obviously having a stable economy; this probably would have been fine.

    • Andrew

      Thanks for pointing that out, I was going to but then decided to scroll through a large debate on the constitution to find your comment. 🙂

      It’s disappointing that Randy added this editorial paragraph to what is, otherwise, a pretty cool data breakdown.

      If you want to look at it less idealistically, I see it as younguns are interested in spending to create opportunities while elders are interested in spending to preserve what they’ve already got.

      • Robert Bostick

        Andrew,

        Those are rational decision making processes for both groups. That’s the way it’s always been. The problem with this article is that it’s based on a false premise. Namely, that the monetarily sovereign U.S. government is constrained by revenue to spend. No it is not constrained by revenue per se.

        Our government issues a non-convertible, fiat currency, with a floating exchange rate and all of our debt in our own currency and, therefore, never, operationally, faces a solvency constraint.

        Our government doesn’t need to tax or borrow to spend under its monetary sovereignty. It taxes to force us to accept the paper currency, manage inflation and income distribution. It does not operationally, tax to spend.

        Therefore, while there exists reams of legislation supporting the meme “tax payer funded”, taxes for revenue are obsolete. (Ruml, 1946, http://home.hiwaay.net/~becraft/RUMLTAXES.html Under a gold standard and fixed exchange rates taxation is necessary.

        The fundamental problem is that too few understand this reality, therefore, we are scammed into believing we have to pay taxes to fund the Federal government. We don’t, and shouldn’t.

        Every Federal/state/local tax reduces our ability to save and accumulate wealth. Because the middle class is taxed proportionately more than upper classes, (Payroll Tax sucks 6.4% out of our paychecks) we cannot accumulate assets as consistently as those who earn more than $117.500/yr. They get to save 6.4% of everything they earn above that cap. It comes to 12.8% for two earners above the cap. That’s a lot of money.

        There should be replacement of all taxes on income and consumption with a progressive land tax.

  • Taters McFly

    Why is ANY of this surprising?? It is all terribly Pavlovian and self-serving. Hardly news

  • Gabe Harris

    “Considering the possibility that the Senate will flip parties, this will be a particularly important election to vote in.”

    You act as if you really believe that. Both parties are controlled by the same group of elites that play up petty differences in order to divide and conquer the masses. People that take the red and blue “battles” seriously are about as childish as those who think professional wrestling is real.

  • This WIll Help

    So we can vote away Social Security and Military Spending? Where’s the Republican against military spending I can vote for? Where’s the democrat against military spending I can vote for? Oh, wait, they don’t exist.

    • Martin

      Yea, I’ll just vote a bunch of younger independents in!

      Oh wait, none on my ballot.

      I love when all our country’s problems are blamed on nonvoters.
      It’s like, if you don’t help choose a shade of purple, then it’s your fault it’s purple.

    • Gabe Harris

      EXACTLY! only thing they leave up to “the people” to decide is whether or not gays get certain legal contracts automatically put in place when they decide to hook up for long periods of time.

  • This is really cool! It could be interesting to “invert” the visualization and make a stacked bar chart–one bar for each age range, each composed of the categories piled on top of each other. This could show the proportional differences between groups.

    Great job!

  • Jim

    I just cant see that this “demonstrates” a growing divide. From the data presented I infer at different stages of life there are different priorities.

    Was there a correlated question for which respondents could give a straight thumbs-up/-down on each of the options? Any data on how many of the options got a thumbs-up based on generation of respondent?

    Conceivably military and defense could be the number two choice for those who selected jobs or education as their number one answer.

    Perceptions on how constrained the budget might be seem likely to vary by age as well.

  • kim

    But. I’m old (according to the chart), and I want the military spending slashed. I want education and job creation funding to skyrocket. Social security? Please just leave it where it is. It’s fine, and not hurting anyone, not in trouble like people like to say it is.

    So where does this put me? And I bet a lot of people like me.

    • Kim, that puts you in the rare 5%. Go you! 🙂

    • Wyomingite

      It seems that by slashing military overspending, and infusing education (sciences, affordability etc.) we would eventually have enough job creation that it could stabilize social security. Evenentually…

    • BK

      The cool this is that SSI has it’s own dedicated income stream and doesn’t affect the other options. The dirty little secret that our politicians won’t discuss is that SSI is fine and if running a surplus and has for years. That surplus went to the general fund and was replaced with bonds. The problem is now is that they don’t want to cash in those bonds to pay for the baby boomers as it would decrease the general fund.

  • Ama

    Neat post. Looks like self-serving and short-run preferences (given the options to choose from)

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  • rackl3r

    Send the old people to fight. They have nothing better to do.

About this blog

This blog is my labor of love, and I've spent hundreds of hours working on the projects that you'll read about here. Generally, I write about data visualization and machine learning, and sometimes explore out-of-the-box projects at the intersection of the two. I hope you enjoy my projects as much as I have.

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