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Soc Secur Bull. 2001-2002;64(3):12-22.

Trends in the economic status of the elderly, 1976-2000.

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  • 1Division of Policy Evaluation, Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics, Social Secuirty Administration, USA.


The economic well-being of elderly Americans (aged 65 or older) improved between 1976 and 2000. Overall, poverty rates fell during this period, median real income rose, and median income relative to the working-age population was relatively stable. Most population subgroups shared in the reduced poverty rates; however, the economic status of elderly Hispanics did not improve. This article attempts to explain those economic trends by identifying changes in five sources of income for the elderly and analyzing the changes in the context of demographic changes in the elderly populations over the past 25 years. As a result of increased longevity, for example, larger proportions of elderly men and women are now 80 or older, and smaller proportions are 65 to 69. Hispanics and Asian Americans make up a larger share of the elderly population and whites a smaller share. The fraction of women who are married has increased, the fraction who are widowed has fallen, and the fraction who are divorced has grown. Such demographic changes can greatly affect the economic status of subgroups as well as the overall elderly population. Of the five sources of income for the elderly, Social Security remains the most prevalent and important. While both the rate of receipt and the share of aggregate income from Social Security benefits stayed relatively steady over the past 25 years, the average real Social Security benefit increased because of rising wages. Income from assets, the second most important source of income for the elderly, fluctuated. Because the elderly are more likely to hold interest-bearing assets such as bonds rather than stocks, their asset income is responsive to changes in nominal interest rates and bond yields. Receipt of pension income increased during this period, although it leveled off during the 1990s. Factors contributing to this pattern include enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which increased protections of pension benefits for spouses, and improved labor market opportunities for blacks and women. In recent years, defined contribution pension plans have become more prevalent than defined benefit plans, but the full effect of this change on pension income may not yet be apparent. After decades of decline, labor force participation rates of older men leveled out in the mid-1980s and then increased. For older women, the trend before the mid-1980s was flat, but since then rates have risen substantially. The increased use of part-time jobs or self-employment to ease the transition into retirement, the economic expansion of the 1990s, and the liberalization of the Social Security earnings test may all have contributed to those trends. Although the percentage of elderly people with earnings has increased only modestly in the past few years, the share of income from earnings has grown substantially--from 16 percent of income in 1984 to 23 percent in 2000. Finally, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are indexed for inflation but not for growth in real wages. As real incomes of the elderly rose, therefore, fewer elderly persons were eligible to receive SSI or, for those receiving SSI, were eligible for smaller benefits. The proportion of elderly persons receiving public assistance, primarily SSI, declined from 11 percent in 1976 to 5 percent in 2000.

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