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is Social Security Part of the Social Safety Net?

Author

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  • Jeffrey R. Brown
  • Julia Lynn Coronado
  • Don Fullerton

Abstract

Building on the existing literature that examines the extent of redistribution in the Social Security system as a whole, this paper focuses more specifically on how Social Security affects the poor. This question is important because a Social Security program that reduces overall inequality by redistributing from high income individuals to middle income individuals may do nothing to help the poor; conversely, a program that redistributes to the poor may nonetheless be regressive according to broader measures if it also redistributes from middle to upper income households. We have four major findings. First, as we expand the definition of income to use more comprehensive measures of well-being, we find that Social Security becomes less progressive. Indeed, when we use an "endowment" defined by potential labor earnings at the household level, rather than actual earnings at the individual level, we find that Social Security has virtually no effect on overall inequality. Second, we find that this result is driven largely by the lack of redistribution across the middle and upper part of the income distribution, so it masks some small positive net transfers to those at the bottom of the lifetime income distribution. Third, in cases where redistribution does occur, we find it is not efficiently targeted: many high income households receive positive net transfers, while many low income households pay net taxes. Finally, the redistributive effects of Social Security change over time, and these changes depend on the income concept used to classify someone as "poor".

Suggested Citation

  • Jeffrey R. Brown & Julia Lynn Coronado & Don Fullerton, 2009. "is Social Security Part of the Social Safety Net?," CESifo Working Paper Series 2610, CESifo Group Munich.
  • Handle: RePEc:ces:ceswps:_2610
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. 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 401-421, December.
    2. Jeffrey B. Liebman, 2002. "Redistribution in the Current U.S. Social Security System," NBER Chapters,in: The Distributional Aspects of Social Security and Social Security Reform, pages 11-48 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Lerman, Robert I. & Yitzhaki, Shlomo, 1995. "Changing Ranks and the Inequality Impacts of Taxes and Transfers," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 48(1), pages 45-59, March.
    4. 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.
    5. John Karl Scholz & Ananth Seshadri & Surachai Khitatrakun, 2006. "Are Americans Saving "Optimally" for Retirement?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(4), pages 607-643, August.
    6. Boskin, Michael J. & Kotlikoff, Lawrence J. & Puffert, Douglas J. & Shoven, John B., 1986. "Social Security: A Financial Appraisal Across and Within Generations," CEPR Publications 244432, Stanford University, Center for Economic Policy Research.
    7. Gustman, Alan L. & Steinmeier, Thomas L., 2001. "How effective is redistribution under the social security benefit formula?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 82(1), pages 1-28, October.
    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. Feldstein, Martin & Liebman, Jeffrey B., 2002. "Social security," Handbook of Public Economics,in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 4, chapter 32, pages 2245-2324 Elsevier.
    10. Michael D. Hurd & John B. Shoven, 1985. "The Distributional Impact of Social Security," NBER Chapters,in: Pensions, Labor, and Individual Choice, pages 193-222 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Lerman, Robert I. & Yitzhaki, Shlomo, 1995. "Changing Ranks and the Inequality Impacts of Taxes and Transfers," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 48(1), pages 45-59, March.
    12. 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.
    13. Panis, C.W.A. & Lillard, L.A., 1996. "Socioeconomic Differentials in the Returns to Social Security," Papers 96-05, RAND - Labor and Population Program.
    14. Kopczuk, Wojciech & Saez, Emmanuel, 2004. "Top Wealth Shares in the United States, 1916-2000: Evidence From Estate Tax Returns," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 57(2), pages 445-487, June.
    15. Jeffrey Brown & Jeffrey B. Liebman & Joshua Pollet, 2002. "Appendix. Estimating Life Tables That Reflect Socioeconomic Differences In Mortality," NBER Chapters,in: The Distributional Aspects of Social Security and Social Security Reform, pages 447-458 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Ignacio Álvarez & Natalia da Silva & Álvaro Forteza & Ianina Rossi, 2012. "Incentivos y patrones de retiro en Uruguay," Estudios Económicos, El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Económicos, vol. 27(2), pages 219-271.
    2. Kuhle, Wolfgang, 2012. "Dynamic efficiency and the two-part golden rule with heterogeneous agents," Journal of Macroeconomics, Elsevier, vol. 34(4), pages 992-1006.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H23 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Externalities; Redistributive Effects; Environmental Taxes and Subsidies
    • H55 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Social Security and Public Pensions

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