Getting the Facts Straight on Retirement AgePosted: March 12, 2013
On the front page of the Washington Post on March 11, 2013, Michael Fletcher connects the different life expectancies of the poor and rich to the debate over whether Social Security should provide more years of retirement support as people live longer. He mistakenly leaves the impression that adjusting the retirement age for increases in life expectancy hurts the poor the most. In fact, such adjustments take more away from the rich. Let me explain how.
Suppose I designed a government redistribution policy that increases lifetime Social Security benefits by $200,000 for every couple with above-average income that lives to age 62. For every couple with below-average income that reaches age 62, my program would increase benefits by $100,000.
Does this sound like a good policy? Well, that’s exactly what Social Security has done by providing all of us with increasing years of retirement support. People retiring today get many, many more years of Social Security benefits than those retiring when the system was first created. And, the primary beneficiaries are the richer, not the poorer, among us. Throwing money off the roofs of tall buildings would be a more progressive policy, since the poor would likely end up with a more equal share.
Why, then, do some Social Security advocates oppose increasing the retirement age? Because the $100,000 in my example could mean proportionately more money for the poor. For instance, it might add one-tenth to their lifetime earnings (of, say, $25,000 a year for 40 years of work, or $1 million over a lifetime), while the $200,000 to rich individuals might add only one-fifteenth to their lifetime earnings. As it turns out, even this assumption isn’t correct, but let’s assume for the moment it is.
Why would we want to redistribute that way? Following that logic, we should have protected the jobs of all the Wall Street bankers after the recent crash because their wages represented a smaller share of their income than the wages of poorer workers providing support services. Or perhaps we should provide $5,000 of food stamps to those making more than $50,000 and $3,000 of food stamps to those making $20,000; after all, the latter would still get proportionately more.
As it turns out, however, more years of retirement benefits don’t benefit the poor proportionately more than the rich. Yes, the poor have lower life expectancies, but other elements of Social Security offset this factor. A greater share of the poor doesn’t make it to age 62, so a smaller share of them benefit from expansions in years of retirement support. More importantly, those who are poorer are more likely to receive disability payments that aren’t affected one way or the other by the retirement age; hence, again, a significantly smaller share of them benefit from more retirement years. Other regressive elements such as spousal and survivor benefits also come into play for reasons I won’t further explain here. Empirically, these various factors add up in such a way that increases in years of benefits help those who are richer and those who are poorer in ways roughly proportionate to their lifetime incomes.
Setting these disputes aside, the higher mortality rate of the poor at each age does raise many legitimate policy issues. Recipients who stopped smoking a couple of decades ago, for instance, have been rewarded with more and more years of retirement benefits. This, along with many other features of Social Security, such as the design of spousal benefits already noted, does mean that the system is a lot less progressive than most believe.
The more fundamental issue, then, is whether we should better protect those with low-to-average wages during their lives. I believe we should but through better-targeted mechanisms, such as minimum benefits, progressive adjustments to the benefit formula, wage supplements to low-wage workers, and other devices that don’t spend most of the program’s funds on ever more years of retirement for those who are richer.
Yet another reason to worry about the retirement age is that the failure to adjust over time—a couple retiring today at 62 can now expect about 27 years of benefits—has meant larger shares of payments go to those closer to middle age, in terms of remaining life expectancy. Almost every year, a smaller share of payments goes to those who are truly old and more likely to need assistance.
In sum, the recent widening gap in life expectancy, likely due to such factors as differential rates of cigarette smoking, deserves serious attention. But let’s not pretend that throwing money off the roof, or providing more years of retirement support to the non-disabled who make it to age 62, addresses the core issue. There are better ways to compensate than converting a system originally designed to protect the old into one offering middle-age retirement to everyone.