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Social Security provides 83% of income for the bottom fifth of American households age 65 and older, 64% for the middle fifth, and 18% for the top fifth.
Social Security means different things to people at different income levels.
Some zombie lies cannot be smacked down hard enough or often enough. The claim that we should raise the Social Security retirement age because we're all living longer and can therefore work longer is high on that list. This zombie is so hard to kill because the people who control policy will live longer and be able to continue working long past 65. If you've had good medical care for most of your life and you work at a desk in a climate-controlled office, it doesn't sound so hard. But for people who do physical work, it's another story. The reminder of what that means—physical pain, dangerous situations—has to come as relentlessly as the raise-the-retirement-age zombie.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein set a little zombie loose on CBS last week, joining Alan Simpson, Pat Robertson, and too many more to name.

But let's talk about the real world:

The fact is, men are living less than three years longer, women about five. Yes, there are more people living longer because they didn't die at age 3 of whooping cough or polio, but the life expectancy for an individual has not been extended very much at all once age 65 is reached. Disturbingly, pushing the retirement age out five years as is currently proposed actually means an individual male retiree today is at risk of being cheated of two years more retirement than our supposedly drastically shorter-lived forebears received more than half a century ago.
What gains in life expectancy there are come—surprise, surprise—overwhelmingly at the top of the income and class distribution.
Male life expectancy at 65 for the bottom half of the earnings distribution increased from 15 years to 16.1 years between 1982 and 2006. For the top half of the earnings distribution, it increased from 16.5 to 21.5.
Again, at the top, people have good medical care, easy access to a healthy diet, and jobs that aren't physically taxing. The same cannot be said for everyone:
  • Poor health remains a significant barrier to continued employment for older Americans. Roughly 20–30 percent of Americans in their 60s have a health problem that limits their ability to work or to perform basic physical tasks.
  • Many older workers continue to work in physically demanding or difficult jobs. According to recent studies, 45 percent of workers age 62 to 69 have physically demanding jobs or work under difficult conditions, and an even greater share have jobs that require at least sporadic physical effort. [...]
  • ...Returning to work is a particular challenge for unemployed older workers, who are likely to be out of work longer than prime-age workers and to experience larger pay cuts if they manage to find jobs.
  • About 40 percent of workers retire earlier than planned due to poor health, caregiving responsibilities, job loss, or similar reasons.
That's a whole bunch of things that can and do make it horrible if not impossible for people to continue working through their 60s. Bending over dozens of times a day and lifting a mattress to tuck sheets under it, as hotel housekeepers do; carrying boxes or crates, as delivery, warehouse, and stock workers do; bathing patients or helping them between bed, wheelchair, and bathroom as health care workers do. These things break your body down over time, and for many workers in their 60s are simply impossible. Physical injury isn't the only concern people face when they don't work behind a desk, either. In 2008, I wrote:
My closest friend's father is about the same age as my father, but while my college professor father rarely mentions retirement, my friend's electrician father has been counting down the months until he can retire. And one key factor motivating his countdown is that he's a shift worker and is periodically required to work the graveyard shift. Working from midnight to 8 AM is one thing in your 20s or 30s. Think about doing that in your 60s. Think about doing that in your 60s when the tasks you'll be called on to do at 4:30 AM are potentially hazardous.

For the past few years, my friend's father has used most of his vacation time to get out of working graveyard. He can't plan ahead to take a trip, he can't choose when he needs a break.

That was someone with a good working-class job, a skilled job, with health and retirement benefits. Retirement still couldn't come soon enough for him. It did come, though. For many workers, it's even harder to wait, and the hope of having a secure retirement is much more distant.

Social Security provides the majority of income for three-fifths of Americans over age 65; what's more, "for the poorest 40 percent of 65-and-older households, Social Security payouts constitute more than four-fifths of total income." The average monthly benefit is $1,230. That's $14,760 a year. If you begin collecting Social Security before your "full retirement age" of 66 or 67, your monthly benefits are reduced. Yet many Americans are faced with the choice of benefits reduced below that average of $1,230 a month or continuing to work in pain or in circumstances that threaten their health.

Many people who work behind desks and think raising the Social Security eligibility age would be a reasonable solution to the crisis they're told exists in the program are just suffering from a lack of imagination. But too many policymakers and wealthy CEOs and pundits know all this and still push an increase in the retirement age as a "sensible, fair" policy solution. For them, it's the same as opposing an increase in the minimum wage, or blocking paid sick leave for workers. It's about keeping workers powerless and poor and afraid and keeping power for themselves.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 09:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders.

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