Playing with Medicare and Social Security

I retired recently from a white collar, management, high stress job at the age I have always expected to retire, 65.  I think I can say that my retirement was a cause of envy among many of my co-workers who are just as tired and stressed as I was but have many years before they can retire.  As I said to my former staff members at lunch the other day, you don’t realize how tired you are until you retire.  And even then it takes time to de-stress.  So I can imagine if I were working a job that was physically demanding (and maybe also stressful) and how it would make me feel if I knew I had to work until 67 or 70 to get any kind of benefits which is where many Republicans (and some Democrats) want us to end up.  I don’t think that some of the corporate CEO’s and elected officials understand this which is why this piece by Ezra Klein caught my eye.

I’ll be clear: Raising the Medicare eligibility age makes no sense. It cuts federal health-care spending but raises national health spending, which is what really matters. It doesn’t modernize the system or bend the cost curve. It doesn’t connect to any coherent theory of health reform, like increasing Medicare’s bargaining power, increasing competition in Medicare, ending fee-for-service medicine, or learning which treatments work and which don’t. I’m not opposed to cutting Medicare — quite the opposite, actually — but this is a particularly brain-dead way to do it.

Its importance in the negotiations is attributable to the fact that raising the age at which Americans can receive Medicare and Social Security has a weird, symbolic power in Washington. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi puts it, the eligibility age is “a trophy” that Republicans can bring back to their base. Though the policy is deeply unpopular with voters, it’s quite popular among Republican elites.

Klein floats this idea

If it’s age increases that the political system wants, there’s a better way to do it. Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised the Obama administration on health care and now works with the Center for American Progress, calls it “graduated eligibility,” and it would link the age of eligibility with lifetime earnings:

Here’s how it would work. People in the bottom half of the lifetime earnings distribution would become eligible for normal retirement benefits at age 65 for Medicare and 66 for Social Security, just as they are today. But people in the next quarter of the lifetime earnings distribution would become eligible for the respective programs at 67 and 68, and those in the top quarter would become eligible at 70 and 71. All eligibility ages would increase over time, as they are scheduled to now.

This makes sense on a few different levels. For one thing, a favorite argument for raising the age at which benefits begin is that seniors live longer today than they did when these programs began. But those gains aren’t equal: Richer seniors live six years longer than poorer seniors, on average. “Graduated eligibility” accounts for that fact.

This does make a certain amount of sense, but I still worry about those who work physically demanding jobs like construction.  I’m not even sure about the scheduled age increases for full benefits.  Maybe we should lower ages at the bottom, leave the middle, and raise it even highter at the top.

I remembered that I heard somewhere that the average retirement age is 62 and went looking for confirmation.  I found this story in the Financial Advisor from April 2012.

More than one third of pre-retirees (35%) surveyed think they will never retire, an increase from 29% in the 2009 survey. Only one in 10 pre-retirees thinks they will retire before age 60. Half of pre-retirees say they will wait until at least age 65.

In reality, 31% of retirees quit work before age 55, 20% before age 60, and another 10% before age 62.

“There is a major disconnect between when people say they plan to retire and when they actually do,” the survey says. Some of it may be because of health problems or because they are downsized. “Many who lose jobs in their 50s and 60s experience more difficulty finding new employment,” the survey adds.

The survey was taken of 800 pre-retirees and 800 retirees, ages 40 to 80. It is the sixth survey of this type taken by the Society of Actuaries since 2001.

So there is also a disconnect between the proposals on age eligibility and what people so in real life.

I am worried that we are going to end up with a policy that has very bad unintended consequences.  I saw Nancy Pelosi in an interview a few nights ago when she said she hadn’t seen how raising the Medicare age was going to create savings.  She said, “Show me the money.”  I would go further and say, I don’t think that anyone has done the math and I can only hope that the President, Democrats in Congress and maybe some Republicans will do the math first.

Photograph:  Alex Wong