RWJF Investigators Link Social Security to Improved Health

Peter Arno, Ph.D., cites long-term declines in mortality rates as evidence of Social Security's role in keeping older Americans healthy for longer.

    • March 8, 2011

With the federal budget battles an annual source of contention in Washington, D.C. and the long-term solvency of Social Security a continuing topic of debate, some policy-makers may have a difficult time seeing the nation’s largest social welfare program as anything more than a big-ticket, politically sensitive budget item. But a new study from Peter Arno, Ph.D. and Jim House, Ph.D., recipients of 1997 and 1996 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research, is a reminder that Social Security plays a critical role in maintaining the health of Americans over the age of 65.

Social Security keeps nearly 44 percent of older Americans out of poverty, and that alone helps improve health and lengthen lives. By increasing and stabilizing income for older Americans, Arno and colleagues argue that Social Security improves seniors’ living conditions and increases their access to medical care. This impact on poverty is more substantial than all other government programs combined.

To analyze the effect of Social Security, Arno and his colleagues sought to separate its impact from other factors that have likely played a role in improving health over the last century. After controlling for changes in the economy, access to medical care including the growth of antibiotic use and Medicare, they found that while mortality rates for all adults fell during the 20th century, rates of decline for those 65 and older changed much more than for other age groups in the decades following the introduction of Social Security. By contrast, rates of mortality decline for the younger age groups remained virtually the same during this period. The trend was particularly pronounced following the creation of Social Security and again soon after lawmakers increased benefits through legislation and indexing of benefits to inflation in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The political discourse around Social Security focuses exclusively on the system’s long-range financial problems rather than on the benefits of improved health and reduced poverty,” said Arno, professor and director of the Center for Long Term Care Research and Policy at New York Medical College.

Arno and colleagues are careful to note just how many American retirees rely on Social Security. They write, “Social Security remains a key source of income for most its recipients. In 2008, more than half (63.9 percent) of the beneficiaries aged 65 years or older received 50 percent or more of their total income from their monthly Social Security checks. For a third of the elderly beneficiaries (34.2 percent), it provided 90 percent or more of their income.”

For that reason, cuts in benefits would inevitably have a negative effect on the health of a great many retirees, the research concludes. “If Social Security is put on the chopping block, lawmakers will jeopardize the most important safety net for America’s elderly,” he says. “By not considering the benefits of reduced mortality and poverty reduction, policy-makers are grossly underestimating Social Security’s benefits to society.”

Note: Arno will present his research to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare Foundation, 10 G Street N.E., Suite #600, Washington, D.C. on Friday, March 11 at 11 a.m. For information or to RSVP, call 202/216-8377.