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The Life-Expectancy Gap

olderamericansAnd now comes the life-expectancy gap. It may change the national conversation over Social Security and an aging society — for the worse.

We all know that the United States is aging, but probably few of us know how skewed the process is in favor of the middle and upper-middle classes. Among men, life expectancy has improved substantially for the richest 60 percent. But for the poorest 40 percent, gains are tiny or nonexistent. Changes for women reflect similar trends, though less sharp.

 

The figures come from a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which estimated life expectancies for workers born in 1930 (now 85) and 1960 (now 55) at age 50. The findings are stark.

For the richest fifth of men, there was a 7.1-year increase in life expectancy, from 81.7 for those born in 1930 to 88.8 years for those born in 1960. Meanwhile, for the poorest fifth of men, life expectancy fell slightly, from 76.6 years for those born in 1930 to 76.1 for those born in 1960.

The changes for the remaining men also parallel income: For the second richest fifth, the increase was 8 years to 87.8 years; for the third richest, 5.3 years to 83.4 years; and for the fourth richest, 1.1 years to 78.3 years.

As a generalization, the higher your income, the longer you live. Just why, the report doesn’t say. It casually cites smoking (concentrated among the poor) and obesity (much less concentrated). Less health insurance and access to medical care are also plausible culprits. So are differences in lifestyles (less exercise, poor diets, more drug and alcohol use) and jobs (more physically grueling for the poor). But the report has no comprehensive explanation.

Whatever the causes, the gaps in life expectancies dramatically affect federal spending on the elderly. Although Social Security and many programs for the aged were designed to favor the poor, the longer life expectancies of the middle and upper-middle classes offset this bias. Because richer male workers collect payments for more years than the poor, their lifetime benefits are much larger.

The study estimated the present value of four federal programs for typical recipients (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income). For the top fifth in income for men, lifetime benefits totaled $522,000, a third more than the $391,000 for the poorest fifth.

We are spending the most money for the longest periods to protect people who need the least protection, because they have more private savings and pension benefits than do the poor. Consider high-income men (top fifth) who retire at 66 and collect full Social Security and Medicare benefits until they die at 89, their statistical life expectancy.

We are subsidizing these retirees for 23 years, about half their working lives (if they became employed at 20, their careers total 46 years).

Does this make sense for us as a society?

To me, the answer is: No.

Social Security should be a safety net, not a gravy train. As the number of retirees soars, so does the cost of paying their benefits. It’s squeezing other federal programs, creating pressures for higher taxes and sustaining long-term budget deficits. We are penalizing the future to pay for the past. We need (as I’ve often written) a fairer distribution of generational burdens. Eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare should gradually increase to reflect longer life expectancies for most Americans. Benefits should be slowly curbed for those near the top.

The study avoids recommendations but suggests that a few extra years of work aren’t a hardship. “Although disability rates rise strongly with age,” it notes, “health is not the main limitation on work at older ages for most workers. More than half of males 65 to 69 who are not working have no health impairments, as do half of those aged 70 to 74. ... There is considerable room for older people to postpone retirement.”

All this seems common sense, but the reality, I suspect, is that the life-expectancy gap will make it even harder for political leaders to come to grips with an aging society. The report hasn’t yet received much public attention, but it almost certainly will. The refrain of the advocates of unrestrained spending on the elderly will be: Don’t raise eligibility ages, because that will disproportionately hurt the poor.

This is simple and superficially correct, but it ignores plausible offsets — higher payments for the poor when they qualify and stronger efforts to understand why life expectancies have diverged so markedly.

What looms is the status quo on steroids. Politics makes policy backward-looking. Programs for the elderly overwhelmingly benefit the middle and upper-middle classes but are defended by appeals for the poor. Some call this “progressive”; others might say cynical.

By Robert J. Samuelson

 

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