Assessing Social Security Qualification among Ever-Incarcerated Men

by Devin Rutan, Princeton University

The first generations of the millions of men swept up by mass incarceration have reached retirement age. Black men with a high school education or less and other economically disadvantaged groups are incarcerated at radically disproportionate rates, undermining lifelong attachment to the labor market. Given their poor labor market prospects before prison, extended periods of incapacitation during their sentence, and substantial barriers to stable employment after their release, the ever-incarcerated population may be unlikely to qualify for Social Security benefits. Social Security is the bedrock of elderly financial security but requires workers to work for roughly the equivalent of ten years of full-time work to qualify for benefits on their own. This dissertation examines long-term labor force participation and the accumulation of qualifying credits for men incarcerated in Wisconsin between 1990 and 2020. It relies on administrative data including prison records, Unemployment Insurance wage records, and death certificates to track an individual’s incarceration and employment status across the life course. I rely on sequence analysis to evaluate trends in labor force participation, survival analysis to estimate the likelihood of qualifying for Social Security benefits, and life tables to estimate life expectancy. This dissertation will examine economic insecurity among a segment of the population left out of typical Social Security projections. If more older Americans are failing to qualify for Social Security benefits, then there may be a growing reliance on Supplemental Security Income as a source of primary income among the elderly.

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