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Gray Peril or Loyal Support? The Effects of the Elderly on Educational Expenditures


  • *This study, and the larger project of which it is a part, are supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES # 0350541). The Research and Graduate Studies Office (RGSO) and the Department of Political Science at Penn State provided crucial support in the early stages of the project. The authors thank Jeffrey Henig and Kenneth Wong for comments on an earlier version of this article. We also thank Nancy Wiefek and Michael Fazio for their very able research assistance.

Direct correspondence to the authors at the Department of Political Science, 219 Pond Laboratory, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802-6200. Coding information for those wishing to replicate the analysis is available from the authors


Objectives. Do large concentrations of elderly represent a “gray peril” to maintaining adequate educational expenditures? The gray peril hypothesis is based on an assumption of instrumental self-interest in political behavior. In contrast, we argue that loyalty to community schools competes with economic self-interest and that older citizens are heterogeneous in their preferences.

Methods. We test these arguments and their implications for public school finance using a data set of more than 9,000 school districts.

Results. The data show that longstanding older residents represent a source of support for educational expenditures while elderly migrants lower spending. Further, this divide among the elderly and their impact on policy outputs depends on how states finance local public education and on aspects of state and local tax policy.

Conclusions. Elderly concentrations are a financial asset for a school district unless the senior community includes a large number of new arrivals. The design of tax policy can have enormous impact on the depth of political cleavages and their ultimate impact on public policy. The results are consistent with the idea that loyalty—an emotional bond between residents and their community's institutions—competes with and often trumps instrumental self interest.

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