October 25, 2018
Longevity Affects Social Security Benefit
It’s long been known that people with high earnings tend to live longer than low earners. But this gap in life expectancy has widened into a gulf.
For example, high-earning men born back in 1912 lived about eight months longer than their counterparts in the bottom half of the income range. This longevity gap increased to five years for men who were born in 1941 and are now in their late 70s. The disparity for women is similar, but not as extreme.
This growing longevity gap has important implications for Social Security. The program’s intent is to be progressive – more generous to lower-income retirees. But the unequal life spans have significantly reduced that progressivity, concludes Matt Rutledge in a new synopsis of research in this area for the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.
The reason low-income workers are losing ground is that they don’t live as long, so they don’t collect Social Security for as many years as high-income workers do.
A study by the National Academy of Sciences, one of several demonstrating the decline in the program’s progressivity, found that the value of lifetime Social Security benefits, adjusted for inflation, increased nearly 30 percent for the highest-income retirees born in 1960, compared with the top earners born 30 years earlier. But benefits either fell or stagnated over that time for retirees on the lowest two tiers of the income scale – the people who rely far more on Social Security.
Although the reasons for the differences in life expectancy, depending on one’s income, aren’t fully understood, various studies explain some of them. High-income people are healthier and can afford better medical care, resulting in a lower risk of dying of cancer or heart conditions. Their smoking rate has also declined, reducing the incidence of related conditions like lung cancer and heart disease.
Some of the most interesting research has dug deeper into the impact of the quality of the conditions people are living in. Low-income people, one study finds, will live longer if they reside among high-income residents in areas with higher housing costs and a college-educated population. Other influences are behavioral. It’s healthy to see people around you who don’t smoke, aren’t obese, and have good exercise practices. The larger tax base in higher-income communities also provides more resources for government services.
In any event, despite the growing income-longevity gap, the same body of research finds that Social Security does continue to be progressive overall.
The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.