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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pain Inequality and the Social Security Retirement Age

Should we raise the Social Security retirement age?:

Pain and inequality, Crooked Timber: The results of this new study on pain assessment by Princeton’s Alan Krueger and SUNY Stony Brook’s Arthur Stone are for the most part not particularly surprising. As it turns out, ... even physical pain is unequally shared. For example, the Krueger/Stone study found that respondents with low socio-economic status experienced “significantly higher pain occurrences and severity.”...

Occupational status seems to play an important role, given that

the average pain rating for blue collar workers is 1.00 during work and 0.84 during nonwork, and for white collar workers it is 0.61 during both work and non-work episodes.

And in an interview, Krueger said, “Those with higher incomes welcome pain almost by choice, usually through exercise,” he says. “At lower incomes, pain comes as the result of work.”

It’s a pretty decent study; though the response rate was low enough (37%) to be worrying, the sample was weighted to reflect the composition of the general population. It’s also an improvement on earlier surveys...

The results aren’t exactly news; other studies have shown that pain and socioeconomic status tend to be inversely related. But Krueger said the relationship between pain and socioeconomic status was “stronger” than he expected.

What are the policy implications? Well, for one thing, the authors say:

The strong association between self-reported disability status and pain is notable given concerns by economists and some policymakers that able-bodied individuals may seek benefits from the Disability Insurance system.

So maybe, just maybe, all those people applying for disability aren’t just a bunch of perfectly able-bodied fakers and whiners after all?

Also, one expert says the results demonstrate “the need for pain preventing measures [in the workplace] such as better ergonomics.” Well maybe, but it’s hard to see how even the most high-quality ergonomic devices are going to make life much easier for people who make a living by scrubbing floors all day, or lifting heavy boxes. And sure, a health care system that provided universal access and did a better job at pain management would help things, too.

Given that pain is higher among blue collar workers than among white collar workers, and given that pain tends to increase with age, retirement has got to look to very different to blue collar workers who have done physical labor all their life, than it does to their more sedentary white collar counterparts. Conservatives and other Social Security crisis-mongerers love to scream about how if we don’t raise the retirement age the Social Security fund will go bankrupt. The more honest ones don’t claim Social Security is going to go under any time soon, but they do say that, given increased life expectancy, increasing the retirement age only makes sense.

In fact, I once heard a University of Chicago economics professor make that very argument. It was a lecture so I couldn’t interrupt, but it was exasperating to listen to. Easy for you to say, Mr. Economics Professor! You can do your job until you’re 100, or until senility sets in, at least.

But what about the people who scrub toilets for a living? Or health care workers who spend much of their work day manually lifting patients? Asking people to do highly physically demanding jobs like those until they’re 65 is already asking quite a lot. There’s a reason why the classic union steelworker contract had a “30 and out” pension provision. After 30 years on the job, a lot of those guys’ bodies had taken so much that they weren’t physically capable of doing physical labor anymore.

So please, let’s not hear anything more about raising the Social Security retirement age... (H/T: Shakesville)

What do conservatives say about people who want to raise taxes? That nothing is stopping them from sending the government more money voluntarily, or something like that? I suppose we could say the same thing here - if you think people should work longer, nothing is stopping you from doing so - except, perhaps, your health. We could make people with physically demanding jobs get a new job somewhere else, probably a much lower paying job than they are used to given the difficulty finding employment as age advances, just to be sure they have done their part for society. After all, doing physical labor day in and day out, and in some cases giving up their bodies and their health to produce stuff for the rest of us isn't enough, we need more than that before we give them a few years in peace.

[See also: The Costs and Benefits of Raising the Retirement Age, and Indexing for Longevity.]

    Posted by on Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 05:04 PM in Economics, Health Care, Social Insurance | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (21)


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