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Op-Ed

Recent Social Security blogs—some corrections

Henry J. Aaron

Recently, Brookings has posted two articles commenting on proposals to raise the full retirement age for Social Security retirement benefits from 67 to 70. One revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the program actually works and what the effects of the policy change would be. The other proposes changes to the system that would subvert the fundamental purpose of the Social Security in the name of ‘reforming’ it.

A number of Republican presidential candidates and others have proposed raising the full retirement age. In a recent blog, Robert Shapiro, a Democrat, opposed this move, a position I applaud. But he did so based on alleged effects the proposal would in fact not have, and misunderstanding about how the program actually works. In another blog, Stuart Butler, a conservative, noted correctly that increasing the full benefit age would ‘bolster the system’s finances,’ but misunderstood this proposal’s effects. He proposed instead to end Social Security as a universal pension based on past earnings and to replace it with income-related welfare for the elderly and disabled (which he calls insurance).

Let’s start with the misunderstandings common to both authors and to many others. Each writes as if raising the ‘full retirement age’ from 67 to 70 would fall more heavily on those with comparatively low incomes and short life expectancies. In fact, raising the ‘full retirement age’ would cut Social Security Old-Age Insurance benefits by the same proportion for rich and poor alike, and for people whose life expectancies are long or short. To see why, one needs to understand how Social Security works and what ‘raising the full retirement age’ means.

People may claim Social Security retirement benefits starting at age 62. If they wait, they get larger benefits—about 6-8 percent more for each year they delay claiming up to age 70. Those who don’t claim their benefits until age 70 qualify for benefits — 77 percent higher than those with the same earnings history who claim at age 62. The increments approximately compensate the average person for waiting, so that the lifetime value of benefits is independent of the age at which they claim. Mechanically, the computation pivots on the benefit payable at the ‘full retirement age,’ now age 66, but set to increase to age 67 under current law. Raising the full retirement age still more, from 67 to 70, would mean that people age 70 would get the same benefit payable under current law at age 67. That is a benefit cut of 24 percent. Because the annual percentage adjustment for waiting to claim would be unchanged, people who claim benefits at any age, down to age 62, would also receive benefits reduced by 24 percent.


In plain English, ‘raising the full benefit age from 67 to 70′ is simply a 24 percent across-the-board cut in benefits for all new claimants, whatever their incomes and whatever their life-expectancies.

Thus, Robert Shapiro mistakenly writes that boosting the full-benefit age would ‘effectively nullify Social Security for millions of Americans’ with comparatively low life expectancies. It wouldn’t. Anyone who wanted to claim benefits at age 62 still could. Their benefits would be reduced. But so would benefits of people who retire at older ages.

Equally mistaken is Stuart Butler’s comment that increasing the full-benefit age from 67 to 70 would ‘cut total lifetime retirement benefits proportionately more for those on the bottom rungs of the income ladder.’ It wouldn’t. The cut would be proportionately the same for everyone, regardless of past earnings or life expectancy.

Both Shapiro and Butler, along with many others including my other colleagues Barry Bosworth and Gary Burtless, have noted correctly that life expectancies of high earners have risen considerably, while those of low earners have risen little or not at all. As a result, the lifetime value of Social Security Old-Age Insurance benefits has grown more for high- than for low-earners. That development has been at least partly offset by trends in Social Security Disability Insurance, which goes disproportionately to those with comparatively low earnings and life expectancies and which has been growing far faster than Old-Age Insurance, the largest component of Social Security.

But even if the lifetime value of all Social Security benefits has risen faster for high earners than for low earners, an across the board cut in benefits does nothing to offset that trend. In the name of lowering overall Social Security spending, it would cut benefits by the same proportion for those whose life expectancies have risen not at all because the life expectancy of others has risen. Such ‘evenhandeness’ calls to mind Anatole France’s comment that French law ‘in its majestic equality, …forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in streets, or steal loaves of bread.’

Faulty analyses, such as those of Shapiro and Butler, cannot conceal a genuine challenge to policy makers. Social Security does face a projected, long-term funding shortfall. Trends in life expectancies may well have made the system less progressive overall than it was in the past. What should be done?

For starters, one needs to recognize that for those in successive age cohorts who retire at any given age, rising life expectancy does not lower, but rather increases their need for Social Security retirement benefits because whatever personal savings they may have accumulated gets stretched more thinly to cover more retirement years.

For those who remain healthy, the best response to rising longevity may be to retire later. Later retirement means more time to save and fewer years to depend on savings. Here is where the wrong-headedness of Butler’s proposal, to phase down benefits for those with current incomes of $25,000 or more and eliminate them for those with incomes over $100,000, becomes apparent. The only source of income for full retirees is personal savings and, to an ever diminishing degree, employer-financed pensions. Converting Social Security from a program whose benefits are based on past earnings to one that is based on current income from savings would impose a tax-like penalty on such savings, just as would a direct tax on those savings. Conservatives and liberals alike should understand that taxing something is not the way to encourage it.

Still, working longer by definition lowers retirement income needs. That is why some analysts have proposed raising the age at which retirement benefits may first be claimed from age 62 to some later age. But this proposal, like across-the-board benefit cuts, falls alike on those who can work longer without undue hardship and on those in physically demanding jobs they can no longer perform, those whose abilities are reduced, and those who have low life expectancies. This group includes not only blue-collar workers, but also many white-collar employees, as indicated by a recent study of the Boston College Retirement Center. If entitlement to Social Security retirement benefits is delayed, it is incumbent on policymakers to link that change to other ‘backstop’ policies that protect those for whom continued work poses a serious burden. It is also incumbent on private employers to design ways to make workplaces friendlier to an aging workforce.

The challenge of adjusting Social Security in the face of unevenly distributed increases in longevity, growing income inequality, and the prospective shortfall in Social Security financing is real. The issues are difficult. But solutions are unlikely to emerge from confusion about the way Social Security operates and the actual effects of proposed changes to the program. And it will not be advanced by proposals that would bring to Social Security the failed Vietnam War strategy of destroying a village in order to save it.

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