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Redistribution in the Current U.S. Social Security System

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  • Jeffrey B Liebman

Abstract

Because its benefit formula replaces a greater fraction of the lifetime earnings of lower earners than of higher earnings, Social Security is generally thought to be progressive, providing a “better deal” to low earners in a cohort than to high earners. However, much of the intra-cohort redistribution in the U.S. Social Security system is related to factors other than lifetime income. Social Security transfers income from people with low life expectancies to people with high life expectancies, from single workers and from married couples with substantial earnings by the secondary earner to married one-earner couples, and from people who work for more than 35 years to those who concentrate their earnings in 35 or fewer years. This paper studies the redistribution accomplished in the retirement portion of the current U.S. Social Security system using a microsimulation model built around a match of the 1990 and 1991 Surveys of Income and Program Participation to Social Security administrative earnings and benefit records. The model simulates the distribution of internal rates of returns, net transfers, and lifetime net tax rates from Social Security that would have been received by members of the 1925 to 1929 birth cohorts if they had lived under current Social Security rules for their entire lives. The paper finds that annual income-related transfers from Social Security are only 5 to 9 percent of Social Security benefits paid, or $19 to $34 billion, at 2001 aggregate benefits levels, when taxes and benefits are discounted at the cohort rate of return of 1.29 percent. At higher discount rates, Social Security appears to be more redistributive by some measures, and less redistributive by others. Because much of the redistribution that occurs through Social Security is not related to income, the range of transfers received at a given level of lifetime income is quite wide. For example, 19 percent of individuals in the top lifetime income quintile receive net transfers that are greater than the average transfer for people in the lowest lifetime income quintile.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau in its series Working Papers with number 02-09.

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Date of creation: Apr 2002
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Handle: RePEc:cen:wpaper:02-09

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Keywords: CES; economic; research; micro; data; microdata; chief; economist;

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References

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  1. Michael D. Hurd & John B. Shoven, 1983. "The Distributional Impact of Social Security," NBER Working Papers 1155, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Martin Feldstein & Jeffrey B Liebman, 2002. "The Distributional Effects of an Investment-Based Social Security System," Working Papers 02-08, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  3. Alan L. Gustman & Thomas L. Steinmeier, 2000. "How Effective is Redistribution Under the Social Security Benefit Formula?," Working Papers wp005, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
  4. Garrett, Daniel M, 1995. "The Effects of Differential Mortality Rates on the Progressivity of Social Security," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 33(3), pages 457-75, July.
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  8. Jeffrey Brown, 2002. "Differential Mortality and the Value of Individual Account Retirement Annuities," NBER Chapters, in: The Distributional Aspects of Social Security and Social Security Reform, pages 401-446 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Panis, C.W.A. & Lillard, L.A., 1996. "Socioeconomic Differentials in the Returns to Social Security," Papers 96-05, RAND - Labor and Population Program.
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  11. Burkhauser, Richard V & Warlick, Jennifer L, 1981. "Disentangling the Annuity from the Redistributive Aspects of Social Security in the United States," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 27(4), pages 401-21, December.
  12. Angus Deaton & Christina Paxson, 1999. "Mortality, education, income and inequality among American cohorts," Working Papers 279, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Center for Health and Wellbeing..
  13. Steven Caldwell & Melissa Favreault & Alla Gantman & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Thomas Johnson & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 1999. "Social Security's Treatment of Postwar Americans," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, volume 13, pages 109-148 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. George J. Borjas, 1994. "The Economics of Immigration," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 32(4), pages 1667-1717, December.
  15. James E. Duggan & Robert Gillingham & John S. Greenlees, 1993. "Returns Paid To Early Social Security Cohorts," Contemporary Economic Policy, Western Economic Association International, vol. 11(4), pages 1-13, October.
  16. Michael J. Boskin & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Douglas J. Puffert & John B. Shoven, 1987. "Social Security: A Financial Appraisal Across and Within Generations," NBER Working Papers 1891, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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