Overall, life expectancy has improved substantially since the first Social Security payments were issued in 1940. Then, a man who made it to 65 could expect to live 12.7 years, compared with 18.6 years in 2010. A woman who turned 65 in 2010 could expect to live 20.7 more years, compared with 14.7 in 1940.
That trend helped persuade lawmakers in 1983 to slowly move the age people could receive full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67, a change that will be complete in 2027. Now, as the cost of providing old-age benefits has emerged as the key driver of the nation’s long-term budget deficit, there is increasing pressure to again raise the retirement age — this time for both Medicare and Social Security.
But given the widening differences in life expectancy for people on opposite ends of the income scale, “that would mean a benefit cut that falls heaviest on people who generally are most reliant on Social Security for their retirement income. It is totally class-based,” said Eric Kingson, a Syracuse University professor and co-chair of Social Security Works, a coalition opposed to reducing old-age benefits.
The gap in life expectancy has widened as the country’s economic life has grown more bifurcated. The high-income Washington region includes two counties with some of the nation’s longest life expectancies. In Montgomery County, life expectancy was 81.4 years for men and 85 years for women in 2009. In Fairfax County, it was slightly lower — 81.3 years for men and 84.1 years for women.
In the District, where 18.7 percent of the population lives in poverty, life expectancy was 72.6 years for men and 79.6 for women in 2009.
Not only is life expectancy diverging by income level, but now some demographic groups — particularly low-income white women — are losing ground.
A study published last week in the journal Health Affairs said that in almost half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before. The counties where women’s life expectancy is declining typically are in the rural South and West, the report said.
Putnam County shares many of those characteristics. Forests, picturesque lakes and the beautiful St. Johns River, the longest in Florida, dot the area. But amid that rural splendor there are few good jobs and, officials said, little access to medical care.