The federal government spends a large amount of money to support the living standards of elderly people — primarily through Social Security and Medicare but with significant helping hands from Medicaid and disability insurance. That amount is growing as a share of the economy because productivity growth is slowing, and because birthrates continue to fall (in line with a long-term trend), but mostly because Americans are living longer.
To many people in Washington, that rising life expectancy is itself a full rationale for cuts to the program. “If you can’t raise the retirement age to 68 by the year 2050 without the AARP losing their marbles,” former Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles commission, once said, then the country just “won’t make it.”
The truth, however, is that the extension of life expectancy in recent decades has been a profoundly class-driven matter — with richer Americans experiencing the vast majority of the gains.