As part of the “fiscal cliff” and “grand bargain” deficit negotiations, some CEOs, politicians, and pundits are saying that raising the retirement age of Social Security should be on the deficit chopping block despite the fact that it does not contribute to the federal budget deficit. Raising the retirement age is usually premised on the idea that everyone is living longer and that we can afford to raise the age at which we receive Social Security.
The problem with this argument is that some are living much longer than others. As Ezra Klein (and others previously) noted last week in the Washington Post, life expectancy is largely a function of income.
As the above chart shows, male earners in the top half (top 50%) have seen their life expectancy at 65 rise about 5 years over the last three decades while the bottom half saw their life expectancy at 65 rise barely a year. This is a crucial point for those advocating for an increase in the eligibility age of Social Security because clearly not “everyone” is living longer.
This could be a particularly acute problem in West Virginia, especially since it ranks as one of the poorest states in the country and it benefits more than any other state from Social Security for its income. While we cannot separate life expectancy based on income in the state, we can look at how average life expectancy rates in West Virginia compare to other states. In 2009, West Virginia had the second lowest life expectancy in the nation at 75.2 years compared to 78.6 nationally. Factors contributing to our state’s low life expectancy is the disproportionally high number of disabled people, our low per capita and median incomes, and a heavy concentration of workers in physically demanding jobs such as coal mining. While the average life expectancy for males in the state was 72.3, it was just 78.1 for females, which was the lowest in the nation in 2009.
Looking more closely at individual counties in West Virginia you see even more evidence that females are not living longer. Among the state’s 55 counties, 18 saw a decline in female life expectancy over the last two decades. In McDowell County, which is one of the poorest counties in the state and nation, female life expectancy declined by 1.7 years, from 75.8 in 1987 to 74.1 in 2009.
There is also a large racial gap in life expectancy. In 2009, the average life expectancy for black males was nearly three years shorter than white males, 69.6 compared to 72.5. White females are living nearly three in a half years longer than black females in the state (78.1 compared to 74.7) . As the graph below shows, black females have also witnessed a decline in life expectancy over the last two decades, from 75.1 to 74.7.
It also important to keep in mind that the above life expectancy rates are “averages.” This means that a majority of folks in the state are below the average, especially lower-income folks who tend to not live as long. Because of the state’s low life expectancy and income, raising the retirement age of Social Security means that the state – and especially the high number workers in low wage jobs – will benefit far less from Social Security than other states and those with higher incomes.
Raising the retirement will also hurt workers in the state that work in physically demanding jobs that tend to retire before 65, such as coal miners and construction workers. In contrast, people with desk jobs, like me, are likely to work well beyond 65.
Keeping all of this mind when debating whether to raise the Social Security retirement age is not only important to our state’s working families and economy, but it is also important if we want to live longer and keep more of our seniors out of poverty.
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