(Bloomberg) — Republican presidential candidates’ rationale for raising the retirement age, that we’re all living longer, holds true for those with multiple diplomas, homes in safe neighborhoods and a plan for golden-age leisure. In other words, for the wealthy.
For the poor, research shows that as incomes have stagnated, so have life expectancies.
Candidates Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio all support raising the age. Democrats tend to oppose their premise that Social Security is in crisis, and that working longer is a fair way to fix it.
Lifting the age from 67, an idea pushed for years to bolster Social Security, would affect Americans in dramatically different ways depending on their wealth. Forcing the poor, who die younger, to work longer threatens to make a lengthy retirement a perk reserved only for the prosperous.
“If we increase the working age in order to mend Social Security, people will be punished in places where life expectancy is very low,” said Ali Mokdad, a health professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This is another policy where the rich will benefit more than the poor.”
Nowhere is the disparity more apparent than in Virginia, which has the widest life-expectancy gap of any U.S. state, according to data collected by Mokdad and colleagues.
In wealthy Fairfax County, just outside Washington, the average woman can expect to celebrate her 84th birthday, and men their 81st. Travel 130 miles (210 kilometers) south to Petersburg, a poor, majority-black city near Richmond, and those figures plummet by 11 years for women and 14 for men.
At a Fairfax County Public Library branch in Falls Church, 34 new and soon-to-be retirees gathered recently for an AARP workshop called “Life Reimagined,” meant to fashion a post-work existence of travel, mission work, new hobbies or sports.
“That’s the beginning of our next life, not the end,” moderator Sally Cooney Anderson told attendees.
Beth Irons, 68, said she still works in real estate because she enjoys it. She wants to cut back while maintaining a lifestyle that includes a seaside Maryland cottage and a coming month-long African safari.
“I want to travel to more countries,” she said.
In Petersburg, post-work lives are circumscribed.
John Ferby, 65, began drawing government benefits in August after a lifetime of manual labor, which included stints in a chicken plant and as a silo inspector. He subsists on monthly payments of $432 from Social Security and $114 in food stamps.
“A lot of people don’t realize you don’t have to eat every day,” said Ferby, as he sat on a friend’s porch.
Life expectancy has been rising in the aggregate. It’s about 79 for the average American, almost a decade longer than in 1960, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those gains accrued mostly to the affluent. In 2010, a 50- year-old man in the poorest quintile could expect to die 13 years earlier than his counterpart in the richest, according to a report last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. In 1980, the difference was just five years.
Life expectancy for the least educated white people (education is often used as a proxy for income) has actually fallen since 1990, according to a 2012 study by the journal Health Affairs.