In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed into law a cut to Social Security benefits. Under the law, the Social Security full retirement age gradually increased from from 65 in 2000 to 67 at the end of 2022.
What this actually meant was not that the age at which people could retire and start drawing Social Security benefits changed—that remained at 62. Instead, by raising what’s called the full retirement age (FRA) by two years, the law effectively cut benefit levels across the board, regardless of the age that any particular individual began claiming Social Security benefits. The result is that those retiring at 62 today face a 50% greater penalty for retiring before the change than they would have before 2000.
In the lead up to the passage of the legislation, a popular argument for raising the retirement age was that life expectancy had increased, so people should work for longer. The presumption was that the increase in life expectancy since Social Security’s implementation would continue as the retirement age rose. But, in reality, something peculiar happened.
Over the same period during which the 1983 law forced the retirement age up from 65 to 67, life expectancy in the US actually declined. In 2000, US life expectancy was 76.8 years. According to data released last December, life expectancy in 2021 was 76.4 years. This was the second consecutive year of significant life expectancy decline.
That’s a drop of 0.4 years over a time span when the FRA rose by nearly two years. So not only have Americans seen their benefits cut by an increase in the FRA, they now also face a particularly morbid version of a benefit cut in the form of shorter lives.