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Abstract

The Implications of Differential Trends in Mortality for Social Security Policy
John Bound, Arline Geronimus, Javier Rodriguez and Timothy A. Waidmann
WP 2014-314

While increased life expectancy in the U.S. has been used as justification for raising the Social Security retirement ages, independent researchers have reported that life expectancy declined in recent decades for white women with less than a high school education. However, there has been a dramatic rise in educational attainment in the U.S. over the 20th century suggesting a more adversely selected population with low levels of education. Using data from the National Vital Statistics System and the U.S. Census from 1990-2010, we examine the robustness of earlier findings to several modifications in the assumptions and methodology employed. We categorize education in terms of relative rank in the overall distribution, rather than by credentials or years of education, and estimate trends in mortality for the bottom quartile. We also consider race and gender specific changes in the distribution of life expectancy. We found no evidence that survival probabilities declined for the bottom quartile of educational attainment. Nor did distributional analyses find any subgroup experienced absolute declines in survival probabilities. We conclude that recent dramatic and highly publicized estimates of worsening mortality rates among non-Hispanic whites who did not graduate from high school are highly sensitive to alternative approaches to asking the fundamental questions implied. However, it does appear that low SES groups are not sharing equally in improving mortality conditions, which raises concerns about the differential impacts of policies that would raise retirement ages uniformly in response to average increases in life expectancy.

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