Last week, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) said that he believes the retirement age for Social Security needs to be increased — despite the regressive nature and complete lack of need for such a move — because young people “will live to be more than 100.” “They’ll be replacing body parts like we do tires,” Daniels said.
Last night, Daniels was joined by another governor who may have his eye on the 2012 Republican nomination for president: Tim Pawlenty. During an interview with CNN’s Elliot Spitzer, Pawlenty said that, due to the nation’s fiscal position, young people will have to “correlate your retirement…to life expectancy”:
There’s other things that we can do that I think most Americans, Republicans and Democrats — because look, we’re in a hole. And we don’t have perfect options. We’re going to have to do some other things too. I would say that the new entrants into the program, we’re going to correlate your retirement. Not for the people already there, to life expectancy in the future in some reasonable way. And there’s other things like that. You add them up and they get to go a long ways towards solving the problem.
Pawlenty never used the words “raise the retirement age,” but “correlate your retirement…to life expectancy” means precisely the same thing. Like Daniels (and many others on both ends of the political spectrum), Pawlenty is relying on a faulty understanding of America’s increasing life expectancy to push a regressive cut in Social Security that will disproportionately impact those most in need of the program.
While average life expectancy has indeed been rising, the increase is largely a result of a significant rise in life expectancy among upper income earners. Middle- and low-income workers have not seen the same increases. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research put it, “there has been a sharp rise in inequality in life expectancy by income over the last three decades that mirrors the growth in inequality in income.”
So, in essence, raising the retirement age punishes low-income, blue-collar workers because high-income, white-collar workers are living longer. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman asked, “you’re going to tell janitors to work until they’re 70 because lawyers are living longer than ever?”
Social Security benefits are already quite modest, as the average benefit is “only about $1,100 a month, or $14,000 a year” — that’s less than 30 percent above the poverty line. While there are changes that can be made to make Social Security a more progressive program that does a better job of protecting society’s most vulnerable, raising the retirement age is certainly not one of them.