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To show that Social Security today is not what President Franklin Roosevelt intended when he signed it into law in 1935, talk show host Glenn Beck claimed that its creators may have designed it so many people would not live long enough to receive the benefits.
"When Social Security started, age expectancy for the average man was 58. It was 62 for women," said Beck. "Wait a minute, when did benefits come in? At 65."
His point was that Social Security was not meant to benefit as many people as it does today. Indeed, Beck went on to say that if Roosevelt had passed the law now, the starting age would be around 80 years old, due to longer life expectancy.
We wondered if Beck was right about life expectancy in the 1930s.
Indeed, he was correct. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency that tracks birth and death data, says that a man born in 1935, on average, lived until he was 60; a woman typically lived until she was 64. So Beck's claims of 58 and 62 were just off slightly. And Beck was correct that an average person would die before Social Security took effect.
What about Beck's implication that the age was chosen purposefully so that the majority of Americans would never recieve their Social Security benefits? Was FDR making this calculation?
Probably not, said Edward Berkowitz, a professor on Public Policy at the George Washington University and author of several books on Social Security. "I think that the age was chosen somewhat at random, certainly not to hedge actuarial bets."
Berkowitz thought that an alternative explanation for the age choice was that the Germans had a similar program that the Americans used as a model. Berkowitz also pointed out that the median age might not reflect real life expectancy because the number was skewed by a large share of infant deaths. "After you survive infancy, life expectancy goes up."
Of course, we can't be sure what FDR was thinking, but for our purposes, Beck's statement is off by just a couple of years and his overall point is right that life expectancy was below the retirement age of 65. That's close enough to earn a True.
Centers for Disease Control, "National Vital Statistics Report Vol. 52 No. 14", p. 34, Feb. 18, 2004
Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, Feb. 16, 2010
E-mail interview with Edward Berkowitz, Professor of Public Policy at The George Washingotn University, Feb. 17, 2010
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