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The Giant Lie Trotted Out by Fiscal Conservatives Trying to Shred Social Security

Social Security hustlers use the life expectancy argument to justify gutting America's best-loved program.

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The Greenspan Commission demanded raising the payroll tax, cutting benefits and gradually raising the retirement age on future retirees. After these changes were enacted, Social Security accumulated enormous surpluses in its trust funds. As economist Robert Reich has explained, until 2012, Social Security took in more payroll taxes than it paid out in benefits and lent the surpluses to the rest of the government. The only reason the program took in less than it paid out in 2010 was due to the Wall Street-driven financial crash. But guess what? Social Security is so well-designed that the interest paid on government bonds more than made up for that difference.

1983 is a long time ago, and because the full increase in retirement age has not yet affected retirees (that experiment is waiting for those under 52) it’s easy for the Social Security hustlers to pretend that it never happened. But it did, and we do not yet know the social impacts of that decision. Since the people who had their Social Security cut are likely to suffer from increased job insecurity and a lack of traditional pensions, we may expect that the impact will not be pleasant for future retirees, excluding the very wealthy.

The Social Security hustlers have already gambled with our future, and now, using the excuse of the recession, they have committed themselves to doing it again.

4. Longevity gains have gone mostly to high earners.

Exhaustive research has clearly demonstrated that income inequality leads to poorer health among people who are not well-off, and that gains in life expectancy have primarily gone to high income workers. A report in the New York Times, “ Gap in Life Expectancy Widens for the Nation” explains that while longevity for the whole country has gone up, affluent people have gained more, and this has cause a widening gap in life span:

...Gopal K. Singh, a demographer at the Department of Health and Human Services, said "the growing inequalities in life expectancy" mirrored trends in infant mortality and in death from heart disease and certain cancers….

Dr. Singh said last week that federal officials had found "widening socioeconomic inequalities in life expectancy" at birth and at every age level.

In the same NYT report, Nancy Krieger, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, rejects the idea that such a gap is somehow inevitable as better and more expensive medical treatment becomes available:

"The recent trend of growing disparities in health status is not inevitable," she said. "From 1966 to 1980, socioeconomic disparities declined in tandem with a decline in mortality rates."

The creation of Medicaid and Medicare, community health centers, the "war on poverty" and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 all probably contributed to the earlier narrowing of health disparities, Professor Krieger said.

Income inequality is notably awful in the US, and according to the centrist Brookings Institute, our life expectancy is predictably lower than that of other industrialized countries. Our ranking among the 34 countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development is a shameful 27. Of the 21 large OECD countries with the highest incomes, America finishes “dead last."

Life expectancy among the less educated and those with lower incomes has actually dropped. New research shows that between 1990 and 2008, white women lacking a high school diploma lost a shocking five years of life, while their male peers lost three years.

Under these circumstances, it’s clear that raising the retirement age is a direct assault on those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, women in particular, and that it would only serve to increase income inequality even further and diminish the chances of long life among anyone but the rich.