Do seniors deserve all those discounts?

Do seniors deserve all those discounts they get from airlines, restaurants, theaters, state and national parks, bus rides and so on?

It's true that many seniors are living on fixed incomes, but they also have had a lifetime to accumulate a nest egg and pay down a mortgage. I've often wondered why companies and governments don't offer discounts to parents trying to feed, clothe and educate a family, or young people struggling to make ends meet on an entry-level salary.

I wondered it again after reading a report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center suggesting that older Americans have become far better off financially over the past 25 years while younger Americans have fallen much further behind.

It said the median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older was $170,494 in 2009. That's 42 percent higher than the same-age household in 1984.

But the median net worth of a household headed by someone younger than 35 was a mere $3,662 in 2009 -- 68 percent lower than it was in 1984.

All numbers are based on U.S. census data, adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2010 dollars.

Net worth is a household's assets minus its debts. The report offered several reasons for the growing disparity between old and young, including rising student loans and more single-parent families. It also noted that older Americans are working longer while younger ones are having more trouble getting a decent-paying job.

But the "overwhelming reason" for the growing wealth gap is "the boom and bust cycle of real estate. It has been very bad for younger adults," says Paul Taylor, an executive vice president at Pew and co-author of the report.

The report said rising home equity was the "linchpin of the higher wealth of older households in 2009 compared with their counterparts in 1984."

Older households were more likely to own a home in 2009 than in 1984 and had 57 percent more equity than the same-age household in 1984.

Younger adults were less likely to own a home in 2009 than in 1984, and home equity played a smaller role in their overall wealth.

Without home equity, the net worth of older Americans in 2009 would have been 33 percent lower than their 1984 counterparts, instead of 42 percent higher.

For young households, the results would be roughly the same with and without home equity.

There could be a "silver lining" if home prices rebound, especially for young people who buy a home at today's depressed prices, Taylor says.

It's also possible that some of the wealth accumulated by older adults will be transferred to their children or grandchildren. "It could be that acts as an antidote to some of the trends" in the report, Taylor says.

He adds that "there is a lot of intergenerational transfer (of wealth) even while people are still living. If grandma and grandpa are doing OK, that relieves a burden on their children and grandchildren." Some older adults are subsidizing their kids. "That's what family members do for each other in dire straits. It goes in every which direction."

The Pew report seemed somewhat at odds with a Census Bureau study released Monday showing that under a new, alternative way of measuring poverty that includes health care costs, 15.9 percent of Americans 65 and older are living in poverty, slightly higher than the 15.2 percent of Americans ages 18 to 64 living in poverty.

The two studies are not directly comparable. The Pew study looks at the median net worth of households. The census study looks at the income and expenses of individuals.

Under the old and still official measure of poverty, younger adults are much more likely to be poor.

Taylor couldn't say whether his study suggests that young people are more deserving of discounts than older ones. So I asked Mark Beach, a spokesman for AARP, the lobbying group for people over 50.

His response: "Businesses offer discounts to folks they want to entice to use their products. Folks over 50 are desirable customers."

He says that "it can look like people 65-plus have a lot more resources (than younger people) and there are certainly those who do." But as the Pew study pointed out, "a lot of their assets are home equity, which is not that easy to tap."

Beach also pointed out that roughly half of the people receiving Social Security rely on it for most of their income; and for a quarter of them, it's their only income.

(E-mail Kathleen Pender at kpender@sfchronicle.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)

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