Today life expectancy at birth is 76, which is troublesome enough, but additional expectancy at 65 is 17 years -- and growing. For about 150 years the longest life expectancies have advanced about 2.5 years per decade. Most people start collecting Social Security at 62, so the year 2019 will be especially challenging because more American babies were born in 1957 -- 4.3 million in a population of 172 million -- than in any year in American history.
Today there are more than 100 million additional Americans, but there were fewer than 4 million newborns per year throughout the 1990s. In the 1950s the median age for women's first marriages was 20.3. By 2000 it was 25.1. This has meant a decline in fecundity, which affects the wager we have made on Social Security as an intergenerational compact -- children being able and willing to support the elderly.
On Jan. 31, 1940, a check, numbered 00-000-001, for $22.54 was issued to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., making her the first recipient of recurring monthly Social Security payments. Then, in an act of dubious citizenship, she lived to 100, dying in January 1975, having received $22,000 in benefits. That did not matter because in 1940 there were 42 workers for every retiree. Today there are 3.2 to one. In 2030 there will be 2.2 to 1. Nowadays, parents have fewer children than they used to, the children are geographically more dispersed and their sense of obligation is attenuated by distance and divorce.
Since 1963 medical costs have grown faster than the economy. And given the dynamism of medical science that is multiplying expensive diagnostic and therapeutic technologies -- pharmacological and others -- medical costs are likely to grow even faster relative to the economy.
Kerry and Edwards simply recoil from contemplating the consequences of these facts, hoping, like Dickens' Mr. Micawber, that something will turn up. The Bush administration has a plan (individual accounts investing a portion of Social Security taxes) for coping with the facts, but no discernible plan -- certainly none it will discuss -- for economies that will make possible paying the transition costs. All of which suggests that entitlement reform remains one of those contentious issues that cannot be debated in an election year or the year before one. Meaning: ever.