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Aging authorities differ on tweaks to Social Security's benefit structure

Experts agree that financial constraints and an aging population will require America to modify its Social Security system, but some also find that pushing back the eligibility age could be a major concern for those who rely on the program the most. The consequences both positive and negative of making the country's seniors wait to start claiming benefits are presented in the latest installment of the Public Policy & Report (PPAR) from the National Academy on an Aging Society, the policy institute of The Gerontological Society of America (GSA).

The articles in the new PPAR, titled "To Raise or not To Raise: The Social Security Retirement Age," reflect the interdisciplinary strengths of GSA's membership; the authors offer the perspectives of biologists, social scientists, women, and other minorities.

"Older workers say they want and expect to work in retirement, and the proportion remaining in the labor force at older ages has been growing," said GSA Public Policy Chair Sara Rix, PhD. "Workers are not, however, necessarily enthusiastic about being required to wait longer to receive their full Social Security benefits, a fact that policymakers will want to keep in mind as they grapple with the pros and cons of raising the retirement age."

The earliest age at which an individual can claim Social Security benefits is now 62. Those born after 1960 can receive full benefits at age 67. Since the program began in 1935, the average life expectancy in the U.S. has increased by almost 16 years, with life expectancy at age 65 increasing by nearly five years. Similarly, the PPAR points out that the share of seniors reporting themselves in poor health has also dropped over the past several decades. One article in the issue demonstrates that delaying retirement can have physical and financial benefits, pointing to studies that show that working longer can reduce morbidity and improve health. When people work longer, they generate additional payroll and income tax revenue and reduce the Social Security deficit.

"Fostering longer work lives can be a win-win situation for workers, employers, and the economy," Rix said. "However, raising the age of eligibility for Social Security would be a benefit cut with a disproportionate impact on some of society's most vulnerable older workers.

The PPAR finds that increasing the normal retirement age could be detrimental to a number of women, minorities, and low-income workers, especially if their occupations become too physically demanding in old age. In addition, the system may prove unfair to African Americans who typically have shorter lifespans than Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, and who thus would pay years into a system from which they might not benefit for as long.


Contact: Todd Kluss
The Gerontological Society of America

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