Enterprise Reporting at the AP

The retirement age debate finally reaches the public

Kudos to the AP for obtaining a report from the government’s watchdog agency, the General Accountability Office (GAO), showing that raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits would disproportionately hurt workers with low incomes. That would mean, said the GAO, higher claims for Social Security disability benefits because some older workers could not work any more.

We were pleased to see the AP story, which reached millions of readers, especially since the retirement age is a focus of the conversation about Social Security that has pretty much been limited to Washington elites and the reporters who follow them. The AP story was clear and to the point, telling readers where the GAO got the raw material for its conclusions. It came from officials and data at the Social Security Administration and a continuing study of older adults at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Solid stuff. Most important, the story added another voice to the discussion.

It reported that Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, had asked for the study that revealed that about one quarter of workers age sixty and sixty-one—just under the early retirement age of sixty-two—had health conditions that limited their ability to work. Black and Hispanic workers were more likely to be in fair or poor health. And it was no surprise that workers in poorer health had lower incomes than those who were healthier. Workers older than age fifty-five were less likely to lose their jobs than younger workers, although when they did, they had a harder time finding new employment.

Kohl told the AP: “There’s more to consider than simply how much money the program would save by raising the retirement age.” He also said the report showed that lifting the retirement age would have an unequal effect on people who then would have little choice but to apply to Social Security’s broken disability program.

The story ends with a kicker from Erskine Bowles, the deficit commission co-chair, who said his report took care of those who couldn’t work: “We put a hardship exemption in there for people who have, what people are always talking about, backbreaking jobs.” The devil is in the details here. Exactly what kind of exemption, who qualifies, and how hard it is to get one is the next subject we hope the AP dives into.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,