As Steven Benen pointed out this morning, Texas Governor Rick Perry is backing away from his earlier suggestions that Social Security was an unconstitutional bad idea. I suppose that’s good news, but it’s perhaps worth noting that Perry also made some trivially silly mistakes in what he wrote in his 2010 book Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington. Two quote just to sentences:
… Even though the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, the fact that no retirement benefits would be paid until 1942 contradicts any notion that it was directed at an emergency. Moreover, retirement benefits were not payable until age 62, when the life expectancy at the time was only 60.
The Great Depression wiped out the retirement savings, modest though they were, for huge numbers of Americans, and Social Security was intended in part to address that. But Perry is right that it wasn’t intended merely as short-term response to an emergency (though it’s unclear who he thinks says it was); Social Security retirement benefits addressed a serious and then-pervasive longer-term problem, that of old age poverty, whose victims had typically worked hard their entire lives and saved as much as they could.
Social Security tax collections began in 1937 and the first regular monthly benefit payments were issued in January 1940. Some lump-sum benefits were paid prior to that. So it’s a puzzle why Perry thinks benefits were not paid until 1942.
Perry also gets the relationship between life expectancy and Social Security wrong. First, he’s apparently using a figure for U.S. life expectancy at birth (not to mention understating it; see this table at Infoplease.com).
Life expectancy at birth is a misleading measure when talking about Social Security retirement age, because for most of human history until just a few generations ago, a horrifying number of children died before reaching adulthood — an enduring tragedy we today largely forgotten and have trouble even imagining. (Improved sanitation was a significant factor in this, but the single biggest reason for reduced childhood mortality is vaccination.)
Obviously the previously high rate of infant and childhood mortality brought down the average length of life. Those who survived childhood had shorter life expectancies as well in comparison with doday, but not so drastically shorter. For example, in 1940 a white male in the middle of his working life (age 40, say) could expect to reach 70.
Or to look at it a little differently, of Americans born in the year 1915 who reached the age of 21, more than 2/3 lived to be 65 or older, and more than 80 percent of women did so. (Additional data here.)
For some other examples of the outside-the-mainstream views in Perry’s book Fed Up!, see Ruth Marcus’s August 30 column.
(Sorry for the recent paucity of blog entries, by the way. I’ve been a bit under the weather.)
(Updated 2017 July 21 to fix some typos and in my usual possibly futile effort to improve some unclear writing.)
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