This paper uses data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to explore the extent of a widening in life expectancies by socioeconomic status (SES) for older persons. We construct four alternative measures of SES, using educational attainment, average (career) earnings in the prime working ages of 41-50, wealth, and occupational classifications.
The paper finds that:
- There is strong statistical evidence in both the SIPP and HRS of a growing inequality of mortality risk by SES across birth cohorts from 1910 to 1961.
- Growing inequality in mortality risk is evident using all four indicators of SES, but it is strongest for the measures based on career earnings and educational attainment.
- The secular changes in differential mortality are very large, but their influence on the length of time for which people receive benefits has been dampened by legal restrictions on early retirement for low-SES individuals and by voluntary postponement of retirement at the top of the distribution.
- Self-reported health status is a highly significant predictor of mortality risk, but its inclusion in the statistical models has only a marginal effect on the evidence of differential mortality operating through the various SES indicators.
- The combination of survey measures of the various SES indicators and the administrative records covering earnings, death records, and OASDI benefits provides a particularly large and rich data set for the analysis of mortality experience and its implications for the distribution of benefits.
The policy implications of the findings are:
- Indexing the retirement age to increases in average life expectancy to stabilize OASDI finances may have substantial unintended distributional consequences, because most mortality gains have been concentrated among workers with relatively high SES.