America’s Retirement Race Gap, and Ideas for Closing It

Some policymakers have pushed to raise Social Security’s full retirement age — when you can receive 100 percent of your earned benefit — as part of the solution to the program’s long-term financial shortfall. But workers of color earn less, have lower life expectancy and tend to work in physically demanding occupations that become more difficult to continue at older ages. For example, 50 percent of Black workers ages 55 to 62 reported in 2014 that they have jobs requiring “lots of physical effort,” compared with just 32 percent of whites.

Under the current system, filing at the earliest age, 62, gets you 75 percent of your annual full benefit; every 12 months of delay past your full retirement age (currently around 66, depending on your year of birth) gets you an additional 8 percentage points until you turn 70.

Retirement ages already are rising gradually to 67 from 65 under changes enacted in 1983. The Boston College researchers note that any further increase in full retirement ages would increase retirement wealth inequity and have a disproportionate impact on minority households.

What’s more, the average longevity of Black Americans is shorter — in 2014, their average life expectancy from age 65 was 18.1 years, compared with 19.3 years for whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the expectancy for Black men was even shorter, at 16.1 years.

“When you lengthen the retirement age to get the full benefit, you’re putting a cut on the people who are going to die younger,” says William E. Spriggs, chief economist for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and a professor at Howard University. “Instead, we should be raising the tax on the higher-income people, who are going to live longer, and stop playing with the retirement age.”

One leading progressive organization would like to do more to address that issue. The group, Social Security Works, has proposed updating the current early retirement reductions, which have not been revised since 1956.

The percent of full benefit a worker could receive at age 62 would increase to 85 percent, gradually rising to 100 percent at full retirement age.

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