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Keep seniors' national park fees low

By Teresa Ghilarducci, Special to CNN
April 25, 2013 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
Teresa Ghilarducci says having seniors pay more to visit parks like Yosemite in California is the wrong way to fix the budget.
Teresa Ghilarducci says having seniors pay more to visit parks like Yosemite in California is the wrong way to fix the budget.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A congresswoman proposes raising the price of the senior lifetime pass to national parks
  • Teresa Ghilarducci: Raising the price for the elderly won't make a real dent
  • She says the idea seems like another attempt to erode the financial situation of American seniors
  • Ghilarducci: There is no fixed pie; it's not as if seniors get more, then young people get less

Editor's note: Teresa Ghilarducci is a professor of economics and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School.

(CNN) -- As the nation faces a looming retirement crisis, a member of Congress has proposed a terrible idea that would bash seniors. Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California asked the National Park Service to consider raising the price of the senior lifetime pass to help solve the parks' $153 million budget gap caused by the sequester cuts.

Pause for a moment and consider that $153 million is a tiny portion of the federal budget. It is a little more than the value of Bill Gates' house and a fraction of the price of a B-2 bomber.

People over 62 can buy a $10 lifetime pass to the more than 2000 federal recreational sites. For volunteers, the disabled and young children, it's free. With the exception of a few other cases, it's $80 for an annual pass to all the sites.

Teresa Ghilarducci
Teresa Ghilarducci

If the park service doubled the cost of the senior lifetime pass, it would raise $5 million. That's such a tiny drop in the bucket it's laughable.

This is not about the $5 million. Raising the lifetime park pass for seniors is not offered up to lower park admission prices for young people.

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In other words, there is no fixed pie. If grandma gets more, then baby Charlie gets less. No. Unlike reptiles, human societies do not arrange to eat their young.

There is a sincere but mistaken belief out there that the old are taking advantage of the young. Societies that pay for the old can pay for the young, too. It's not a zero-sum game.

My colleagues and I have analyzed the national budgets in more than 63 nations. When a society spends more money on the elderly, they also spend more money on education and other programs benefiting the young. For example, in the United States in the 1970s, education spending tripled, education attainment rates soared and Social Security and Medicare expanded.

The park pass proposal comes across as another attempt to erode the financial situation of American seniors who are already facing threats in their coming old age.

Budget cuts hit Washington economy hard

The various proposals floating around to cut Social Security are scary enough for older Americans. For example, one idea from the Simpson-Bowles Commission is to raise the age seniors can collect their full Social Security benefits from 67 to 70 and the eligibility age from 62 to 65.

President Obama has proposed replacing the regular consumer price index, or CPI, to adjust Social Security benefits with the chained CPI -- often called the cat food CPI because the index assumes that when the price of human food rises, seniors can substitute cheaper food to get the same nutrition. A chained CPI would lower lifetime benefits to the oldest seniors by more than $25,000.

With the U.S. economy growing at a sluggish pace, older Americans who are nearing retirement face more uncertainty. In 2012, a report from the Government Accountability Office found employers are reluctant to hire older workers, citing reasons such as outdated skills as one of the factors. Workers who are 55 years old and up who lose their jobs have it the hardest. They face the longest period of unemployment.

Members of Congress who want generational fairness and balanced budgets won't get there by whacking the elderly with Social Security cuts or higher park pass prices. Why can't Congress be smarter about finding ways to revitalize the economy and create jobs? That is a rhetorical question. They are busy finding coins in the sofa cushions instead of creating a sustainable and stabilizing federal budget.

Raising the price of park passes for the elderly won't make a real dent or help young people enjoy the trees more. With this budget process, fewer and fewer families or the elderly will be able to get to the park if they're busy scrambling to get by.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Teresa Ghilarducci.

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