GOP Hopefuls Understand Little about Older Americans and Social Security

GOP Hopefuls Understand Little about Older Americans and Social Security

February 1, 2016

In last Thursday’s GOP debate, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie avoided any mention of their common proposal to “reform entitlements” by raising the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70. Their silence was the right decision: Their proposal demonstrates their lack of understanding about the demographics of older Americans, especially the dramatic disparities in their life expectancy associated with education and race.

Recent research on life expectancy indicates that their proposed change would effectively nullify Social Security for millions of Americans and sharply limit benefits for many millions more. While many people in their 30s and 40s today can look forward to living into their 80s, the average life expectancy for the majority of Americans who hold no college degree hovers closer to 70, or the average life expectancy for all Americans in 1950.

A recent study in Health Affairs explored the average life expectancy of Americans who were age 25 in 2008, or 33 years-old today. It reports that the average expected life span of 33-year-old high school educated men is now 73.2 years among whites and 69.3 years among black—n compared to 81.7 years for whites and 78.2 years for blacks for their college-educated counterparts. American women on average live longer than American men, but their differences based on race and education also are dramatic. The average life expectancy of high-school educated women age 33 today is 79 years for whites and 75.4 years for blacks, compared to 84.7 years for 33-year old whites and 81.6 years for blacks of that age with college degrees. The projected life spans of Americans now in their 30s without a high school diploma are lowest of all, ranging from 68.2 years (black men) and 68.6 years (white men) to 74.2 years (black and white women). Surprisingly, the data suggest that Hispanics have the longest life expectancies of any group, even though they also have the lowest average years of education; but those anomalous results may reflect sampling problems.

(The Brookings Institution just issued a more detailed version of my analysis, with tables, which you can find here.)

Using Census data on the distribution by education of people age 30 to 39 in 2014, we further know that 20,292,000 thirty-somethings or 54.9 percent of all Americans in their 30s fall in educational groups with much lower life expectancies. Some 45.4 percent of whites in their 30s or 10,613,000 Americans have a high school degree or less, and their average life expectancy is 9.4 years less than whites in their 30s with a B.A. or associates degree. Similarly, 64.4 percent of blacks in their 30s or 3,436,000 Americans have a high school degree or less; their life expectancy is 8.6 years less than blacks in their 30s with a B.A. or associates degree. Finally, 75.6 percent of Hispanics in their 30s or 6,243,000 Americans have a high school degree or less, and their life expectancy is 5.0 years less than Hispanics in their 30s with a B.A. or associates degree.

Across all communities – white, black, Hispanic — improvements in secondary education to prepare everyone for higher education, and measures to ensure full economic access to higher education, would add years to the lives of many millions of Americans.

These findings have special significance for Social Security, because the number of years Americans can claim its benefits depends on how long they live. Americans in their 30s today will be able to retire with full benefits at age 67; but depending on their education and race, they should expect to collect those benefits, on average, for a period ranging from 1.2 years to 19.3 years. The most pressing cases involve white men, black men, and black women without college degrees. Among Americans age 33 today, white and black men without high school diplomas and black, male high school graduates can expect to live long enough, on average, to claim Social Security for less than three years. Similarly, white and black women without high school diplomas and black, female high school graduates, on average, can expect to collect their monthly benefits for less than eight years. By contrast, white college-educated men and women age 33 today can expect to receive Social Security for between 14.7 and 17.7 years, respectively; and 33-year old black men and women with college degrees, on average, will claim benefits for 11.2 to 14.6 years, respectively.

These findings dictate that proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age should be rejected as a matter of basic fairness. As noted earlier, GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie all have called for raising the retirement age to 70 years. Among Americans in their 30s today, their proposal would mean that black men without a college degree and white men without a high school diploma, on average, would not live long enough to collect any retirement benefits. White and black women without high school diplomas, and in their 30s today, along with 30-something white men with a high school diploma and black women who graduated high school, on average, would live long enough to receive Social Security for just 3.2 to 5.4 years. All told, the GOP proposals would mean that after working for 35 years or more, 25.2 percent of white Americans now in their 30s and 64.4 percent of blacks of similar age would be able to claim Social Security benefits for about five years or less. And that alone should disqualify any proponent of a higher retirement age from the presidency.