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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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Trying to convince the public to cut America’s best-loved and most successful program requires a lot of creativity and persistence. Social Security is fiscally fit, prudently managed and does not add to the deficit because by law it must be completely detached from the federal operating budget. Obviously, it is needed more than ever in a time of increasing job insecurity and disappearing pensions. It helps our economy thrive and boosts the productivity of working Americans. And yet the sharks are in a frenzy to shred it in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” discussions.

The most popular red herring Social Security hustlers have unleashed into the waters of public discourse has grown into such a massive whale of a lie that liberals frequently subscribe to it. The idea goes like this: We need to somehow “fix” Social Security because people are living longer – “fix” in this context being code for “cut.” Two groups stand to benefit in the short-term from such a scheme: the greedy rich, who do not want to pay their share in taxes, and financiers, who want to move towards privatizing retirement accounts so they can collect fees. As for the masses of hard-working people who have rightfully earned their retirement, the only “fix” is the fix they will be in if already modest benefits are further reduced.

Here are five clear reasons why the life expectancy argument is nonsensical, counterproductive and based on a pack of lies.

1. Social Security’s original designers considered rising life expectancy.

On our red-herring tour, let’s start with the oft-repeated claim that the original designers of the program did not consider rising life expectancy in their calculations. Fortunately, public records pertaining to the lengthy and detailed discussions of the Roosevelt administration’s Committee on Economic Security (CES), tasked with constructing proposals for Social Security, are available for anyone to see. It is absolutely clear from the record that the designers knew that the number of people over the age of 65 was going to increase and that people were going to live longer.

There were differences – as there are now – on exactly how to project this demographic shift, but the idea that a growing rate of older folks taking payouts was bound to happen was a topic of intense scrutiny. Consider the Old Age Security Staff Report, dated January 1935:

“At the time of the last Census (1930) there were six and a half million people 65 years of age and over in the United States. They constituted 5.4% of the population. As a result of a declining birth rate in this country, which manifested itself about 1820 and persisted from that time, the ratio of aged persons has shown a continuous growth from the date. The increase was very slow for 40 years, more rapid from 1860 on, and noticeably accelerated between 1920 and 1930. The latter was due to a rather sharp decline in birth rate which set in about 1920. This decline is expected to persist, moreover, and will of course produce a correspondingly sharp increase in the ratio of the aged to the population as a whole. The recent improvement in mortality rate makes its contribution to this situation.”

That’s right: Not only did the designers know full well that a larger population of older folks was coming, they actually made projections based on that assumption well into the future. They even produced this handy table which projects that increase all the way up to 1980, anticipating a 140 percent increase in the 60 years following 1920:

Ratio of Aged General Population: 1860 - 1980 (By Decades)

1860

2.7

1920

4.7

1870

3.0

1930*

5.4

1880

3.4

1940*

6.3

1890

3.9 (74%)

1950*

7.7 (140% increase)

1900

4.1

1960*

9.3

1910

4.3

1970*

10.1

1920

4.7

1980*

11.3

*This forecast includes survivors of assumed net immigration of 100,000 annually in years 1935-1939 inclusive, and 200,000 annually in 1940 and thereafter. There will be more than twice as many aged in 1960 as there were in 1930.

2. Life expectancy gains since 1935 have been modest.

Another popular argument for cutting Social Security by raising the retirement age assumes a vast difference in human longevity between 1935 and today. You’ll hear this group of hustlers claiming that life expectancy for Americans was less than 62 years in 1935, and now it's more than 77 years, so the program must be inadequate. Alan Simpson of the infamous Simpson-Bowles Commission, who ought to know better since he has been weighing in on Social Security policy, is a fan of this line of argument. Clearly, Simpson has not bothered to read the actual public record on Social Security, or he is knowingly lying.

Here’s the truth of the matter: The early figure was based on life expectancy at birth. That is a vastly different matter from projecting how long people will live after they reach the age of 65 and start collecting benefits. In the 1930s, there was much higher infant mortality, and children died much more frequently from diseases that are now preventable through immunization. Because our parents’ and grandparents’ generations had a high rate of early death, the life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed less than 62 years. But here’s the catch: Social Security is funded by the workers who collect the benefits, along with their employers. Obviously, if you die as a child, you are not going to collect benefits. So the significant measure is not how long you’re going to live after you are born, but rather how long you’re going to live once you hit 65.

In reality, the average life expectancy once a person has reached the age 65 has increased only a modest five years on average since 1940. Makes a big difference in how you look at retirement:

Table 1: Life Expectancy for Social Security

Year Cohort Turned 65

Percentage of Population Surviving from Age 21 to Age 65

Average Remaining Life Expectancy for Those Surviving to Age 65

 

Male

Female

Male

Female

1940
1950
1960
1970
1980
1990

53.9
56.2
60.1
63.7
67.8
72.3

60.6
65.5
71.3
76.9
80.9
83.6

12.7
13.1
13.2
13.8
14.6
15.3

14.7
16.2
17.4
18.6
19.1
19.6

So let’s be clear. Workers who reach the age of 65 today are only living five years longer than their parents. The designers of the program were fully aware of this possibility when they calculated the retirement age and they constructed the program accordingly.

3. The Greenspan Commission already raised the retirement age two years.

Back in 1983, just as Reagan was ushering in the destructive era of supply-side economics, the Social Security hustlers conspired to raise a great hue and cry about the program, which led to the creation of the Greenspan Commission. The Commission looked at the future increase in retired Baby Boomers and also considered increases in overall life expectancy. The result? People like me who were born after 1960 will have to wait until they're 67 to collect full benefits. If you’re younger than 52, two years of your retirement were taken away in the name of “permanently fixing Social Security.” For those a bit older you've had one year shaved off.

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.

5.  Life expectancy rises are likely to slow in the future.

The Social Security hustlers like to make wild predictions that life expectancy will grow in the future at a rapid rate and that our children and grandchildren will be living up to 10 years longer than we do. As we’ve seen, when you’re talking about life expectancy after age 65, gains since Social Security was originally designed are only five years—and those gains are largely among the well-off.

The truth is that there’s not much reason to think that giant increases in life expectancy are going to happen for the vast majority of people – even the more affluent.

A report in the Washington Post shows that contrary to popular belief, we’ve actually seen average life expectancy among all Americans take a small dip in recent years:

Those born in 2008 can only expect to live to be 77.8 years old, down from 77.9 years for those born in 2007, according to an annual preliminary analysis of data conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Yes, there have been steady increases since 1975, but it’s also true that there were drops between 1992 and 1993 (75.8 to 75.5) and between 2004 and 2005 (77.5 to 77.4). Federal budget projections assume Baby Boomers will live much longer than their parents, thanks to new drugs, improved medical care and so on. But not so fast. Factors including obesity, cancer, increased cardiovascular problems, and even higher rates of suicide, could slow or actually reverse the longevity trend.

Justin Denny of Rice Universitywarnsthat it would be a mistake to base projections in longevity gains of the current century based on the last one. Unfortunately, that’s just what the trustees who estimate the future solvency of the U.S. Social Security retirement program have been doing.

In conclusion: cutting Social Security by raising the retirement age is nothing but a trick meant to fool us into thinking that there’s something wrong with a program that keeps millions of American retirees out of poverty. To even consider such a scheme in a time of widespread suffering is one of the most shameful outcomes of the Great Recession. Social Security is efficient, well-managed, and is not undergoing any crisis.

You will be hearing lots of convincing-sounding rhetoric on this topic in upcoming weeks --often from Democrats - including the notion that we should be means-testing Social Security for longevity among high-income earners. That plan plays into the mythology that the program is somehow broken and needs to be "fixed." It also plays into the game of fiscal conservatives who know full well that means testing will diminish support, which is why they have been ardently pushing it for 50 years. It's yet another red herring. Social Security is not contributing to the deficit, and if -- and that's a big if -- a tweak is needed down the road, we can easily accomplish that by raising the cap on payroll taxes, which stands just above $100K. In reality, there is absolutely no sound justification for doing anything now. The bottom line is that raising the retirement age and making changes based on longevity does not pass the test of morality, logic, or sound economics.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.