The “longer lives” myth and how it’s being used to gut your benefits

The life expectancy is much longer today than it was when Social Security was created.

                                                             Virginia Foxx, R-NC

 Most people understand life expectancy has changed since Social Security started in 1937 when folks lived to be 59 years old. Today, they live to be 77 years old.

                                                             Jack Kingston, former R-GA

 If the “longer lives = needing to cut Social Security benefits” argument was a loaf of bread, you’d need a circular saw to cut it–or at least a diamond-coated bread knife.

Blaming the Social Security solvency crisis on increased life expectancy is stale. It’s one of our elected officials’ favorite go-to excuses to explain why Social Security is “failing.”

And why the solution to that failure is deep, deep cuts to benefits.

It’s kind of a weird argument if you think about it: because people on average live so much longer than they did prior to the Social Security Act, more benefits are paid to more people for a much longer time, putting greater pressure on the Trust Fund and pressing the gas toward insolvency.

It’s true that the average American life expectancy has skyrocketed from 59 in 1930 to 78 in 2010. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, improved food and water quality, much lower rates of infant and child mortality, and increased awareness about things that make us sick or injured, we’ve gained some ground as far as longevity goes.

Being the most successful anti-poverty program ever enacted by the U.S. government, it might even be fair to say that Social Security itself played a significant part in that. Where seniors and retirees struggled to afford proper nutrition, shelter, and healthcare in the past, seniors today have their benefits to supplement their savings and prevent the health risks that come with poverty–health risks which are especially hard on older people.

If you’d consider that a fair assessment, it should seem strange to cut benefits because people are living longer–people may be living longer partially due to Social Security benefits.

Stripping benefits from seniors for living longer when the intent of the program was to give retired workers a healthier, happier, and hopefully longer life makes no sense–it’s like teaching a parrot to whistle and then getting rid of the bird two years later because it won’t stop whistling.

The awkwardness there aside, the biggest problem with this argument is the fact that despite what national averages may say, not everyone in this country is living longer. In fact, many demographic groups are experiencing a decline in life expectancy.

This longer life fallacy begins with faulty measurement and ends with lumping all Americans together with no real analysis.

To start, measuring life expectancy beginning at birth is inaccurate. Considering how common it was 100 years ago to lose a child at or shortly after birth, measuring longevity from birth at this time would dramatically skew the results.

Compared against birth to death averages from 2017, it would appear as though people today live decades longer than they did in 1917. The reality is infant mortality has been on a steady decline since after World War II–we aren’t necessarily living longer so much as our children are surviving to adulthood at much higher rates.

Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D. and Distinguished Professor at the University of California at Riverside, says the only accurate way to compare the longevities of each generation is by focusing on life expectancies after age 65–not after birth. In measuring longevity this way, we find that Boomers born in the 40s and retiring this year can expect to outlive their parents by about three years.

This is a far cry from the 19-year jump we mentioned earlier.

These blanket averages also completely ignore the fact that longevity has a lot to do with unique demographic factors–something that lumping all Americans together to get an average erases entirely.

Race, gender, economic status, and education level all influence the life expectancy of an individual.

For example, though whites may have a higher life expectancy overall, that changes considerably when education level is factored in. In general, white men with a high school diploma lost three years of life expectancy, while black men with the same education level gained life expectancy.

Another demographic reality that gets lost: the wealthiest 1% lives as much as 15 years longer than the poorest 1%, a massive gap between demographic groups. In fact, wealth seems to be the #1 indicator in all groups in all areas for higher life expectancy.

When you consider that the longer lives argument is frequently paired with arguments that we raise the retirement age, it seems that the program invented to give the poor a badly needed safety net is benefitting the wealthiest Americans far more. If the wealthiest live the longest, they stand to collect far more in benefits than the poor–and all raising the retirement age would do is lessen the amount of time the poorest workers can enjoy retirement and collect their benefits.

The longer lives argument is dubious at best. It is often based on shoddy statistics, it ignores critical differences between groups, and it is being used to rip chunks out of our benefits under the guise of “reforming” Social Security. It also leads to benefit cuts–like raising the retirement age–that target some of the most vulnerable people in our country.

This is the exact opposite of why we developed Social Security in the first place.

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