WASHINGTON - The bankruptcy of Detroit is an extreme example, but it is not an isolated case.
State and local governments face a prolonged squeeze between costly commitments to retirees and demands for better services - schools, police, libraries, parks, roads and prisons.
As the Great Recession fades, pressures for immediate service cuts may recede, Detroit notwithstanding.
But don't be fooled. The reality is that the scramble for scarce resources is intensifying. Schools compete with nursing homes.
It's a new twist to an old story. In aging America, demography is politics.
In 2025, there will be an estimated 106 million Americans 55 and over, nearly a third of the total population, up from a fifth in 2000.
The future wrestles with the past. How much to serve the elderly and how much everyone else?
At the national level, Social Security and Medicare are crowding out other programs.
Similar conflicts affecting states and localities are less recognized. Spending for the aged is rising rapidly, while revenue growth is slowing.
* Swelling pensions:
Not only are they increasing as baby boomers retire, but they're vastly underfunded.
In 2012, promised benefits for state and local pensions exceeded fund assets by $1 trillion, estimates Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.
This estimate may be too low, because it assumes an average 8 percent annual return on pension assets. A 6 percent return, closer to recent experience, would double the unfunded liability to $2 trillion.
* Costlier Medicaid:
States cover about 40 percent of the expenses of this health insurance for the poor, and spending could increase by 87 percent from 2012 to 2021, projects the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
An aging population and expanded eligibility under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are big drivers. Medicaid already consumes 20 percent of states' general funds, the highest share for any program except K-12 education.
* Eroding federal grants:
States receive 34 percent of their funds from the national government, including Medicaid's federal share. Deficit reduction imperils grants for both states and localities.
Some stringency is admittedly constructive. It may curb wasteful spending.
But today's pressures transcend this healthy discipline.