social security in the case-deaton era
Anyhow, in that spirit, there’s something about the Case-Deaton paper on how middle-aged white people are dying at increasing rates that has been niggling at the back of my mind all month.
The paper, of course, got a lot of attention in the media and blogosphere (including a nice catch by Philip Cohen on how much of the finding is accounted for by changing age composition of 45–54-year-olds). But it’s really the less-educated whose mortality is increasing, not the whole white population.* And the general finding that inequality in life expectancy between rich and poor is increasing in the U.S. is not particularly new, although the finding of actual declines in life span for some groups is relatively recent.
Obviously, the fact that people in the top income quintile are now expected to get a dozen or so more years of life than those in the bottom — a gap that was a third of that three decades ago — has all sorts of policy implications. But it made me think about Social Security in particular.
Social Security is, on the one hand, a political success because it’s a (near-) universal entitlement program. On the other, there have long been complaints the Social Security is itself regressive, since no Social Security tax is paid on income over $118,500. Of course, Social Security also replaces a larger portion of pre-retirement income for lower-income Americans than it does for higher-income Americans. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to figure out whether, on balance, it’s progressive or not.
What is clear, though, is that if low-income folks are losing years of life while high-income folks are gaining them, the system is losing progressivity (or gaining regressivity). I thought I’d play around with some basic numbers to try to examine this question. But it turns out I don’t need to. The National Academies of Science came out with a big study looking at this only a couple of months ago — a study which, so far as I can tell, got nothing like the media coverage that the much simpler Case-Deaton study received.
So what’s the scoop?
Well, as usual with social policy, a lot depends on the assumptions you make. But making some fairly reasonable assumptions, the NAS report finds that yes, the growing mortality gap is also increasing the gap in Social Security benefits received between low- and high-income groups. Lifetime benefits to the lowest income quintile remain about the same for men born in 1960 as for those born in 1930, and for women they decrease nearly 20%. For the top quintile, though, they increase: about 13% for women, and nearly 30% for men, a huge jump.
FIGURE 4-5 Average lifetime Social Security benefits for males (in thousands of dollars).
FIGURE 4-6 Average lifetime Social Security benefits for females (in thousands of dollars).
So what does this mean? Well, if you see this decrease in progressivity as a problem, it suggests you pay attention to the distributional consequences of various proposed Social Security reforms — which are often not taken into account in discussions of their effects. And it’s not always obvious which reforms will have which effects on progressivity. Raising the early retirement age from 62 to 64 makes the system less progressive, which makes sense. But raising the normal retirement age to 70, though it reduces benefits overall, actually (and unexpectedly) makes things more progressive. And reducing Social Security payouts to those with higher incomes accomplishes this even more directly.
More generally, though, this is a reminder that the growing impact of inequality — an impact that results not only in differential material well-being, but in large gaps in actual years to live — has implications far beyond the obvious ones. The growing gap between rich and poor has the potential to undermine the intent of public policies in a whole variety of ways. We ignore this at our peril.
* Caveat: Just as the population of 45–54-year-olds is not the same in 2013 as 1999, neither is the population of adults with a high school degree or less, the population Case and Deaton identify as having the big mortality increase; this group has become smaller over time and relatively more disadvantaged compared to the population as a whole.