Written by Jackie Tortora, AFL-CIO
Are people really living longer? That depends…how much money do you have?
Media pundits and Washington elites love to point to their own lives and say, “Hey, we’re living longer, why not raise the Social Security retirement age and Medicare eligibility age?”
What they fail to realize is that large gains in life expectancy are closely related to how wealthy a person is. Just look at the case of the two counties in Florida that Washington Post reporter Michael A. Fletcher examined in Research Ties Economic Inequality to Gap in Life Expectancy.
St. Johns County senior citizens are living longer. In a community that has an abundant amount of golf courses, hiking and biking trails, the wealthier seniors are enjoying life on the coast well into their 80s. Fletcher writes:
….Women here can expect to live to be nearly 83, four years longer than they did just two decades earlier, according to research at the University of Washington. Male life expectancy is more than 78 years, six years longer than two decades ago.
But in neighboring Putnam County, life is neither as idyllic nor as long.
Incomes and housing values are about half what they are in St. Johns. And life expectancy in Putnam has barely budged since 1989, rising less than a year for women to just over 78. Meanwhile, it has crept up by a year and a half for men, who can expect to live to be just over 71, seven years less than the men living a few miles away in St. Johns.
The difference between the two adjacent counties illustrates the rampant inequality in the United States. Raising the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare would disproportionately harm lower income seniors, who tend to die younger and would receive less benefits.
“People who are shorter-lived tend to make less, which means that if you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of Global Policy Solutions, a public policy consultancy. “Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.”
Another study published last week in the journal Health Affairs, Fletcher writes, said that “in almost half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before. The counties where women’s life expectancy is declining typically are in the rural South and West, the report said.”
Access to health care is another factor in life expectancy. In St. Johns, there are more than double the amount of primary care physicians than there are in Putnam.
What the article doesn’t directly address is how much lower- and middle-income workers rely on Social Security benefits. According to the Social Security Administration, among older Social Security beneficiaries, 53% of married couples and 74% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 23% of married couples and about 46% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.
Raising the retirement age would be a severe benefit cut. Raising the Medicare eligibility age would raise the cost of Medicare because it takes younger, healthier seniors out of the insurance pool. We should talk about improving and expanding Social Security and Medicare, not cutting them.
This post was originally published by the AFL-CIO.