Social Security Is a Great Equalizer


Publication Date: January 2020

Publisher: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Author(s): Wenliang Hou; Geoffrey Sanzenbacher

Research Area: Labor; Population and demographics

Keywords: Financing Retirement

Type: Report

Coverage: United States

Abstract:

As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, it will be increasingly important for policymakers addressing Social Security’s solvency to understand the extent to which various racial and ethnic groups rely on Social Security versus other sources of retirement wealth. Yet, to date, studies on retirement wealth have tended not to focus on race and ethnicity and have largely ignored the role of Social Security. This brief, based on a recent paper, uses data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to document the retirement resources of white, black, and Hispanic households at various points in the wealth distribution for five cohorts of 51-56 year olds between 1992 and 2016.

The discussion proceeds as follows.

The first section explains the calculation of retirement wealth. The second section shows how Social Security reduces retirement wealth inequality by race and ethnicity for typical households in each cohort. The third section looks at the impact of Social Security on retirement wealth inequality across wealth quintiles in a single year. The fourth section shifts from wealth to income to examine replacement rates – the ratio of projected retirement income to pre-retirement earnings. The final section concludes that, as policymakers consider changes to bring Social Security into fiscal balance, the distributional impact of any benefit cuts with respect to minority groups may be worth considering.