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Work, health, and income among the elderly.

Work, Health, and Income Among the Elderly.

Gary Burtless, ed.Brookings, $26.95. Social security is one of the few social programs that survived the ravages of the Reagan years. But amidst millions of comfortable retirees, there is a stubbornly high number of senior citizens still living in poverty. A recent Villers Foundation study shows 12.6 percent of senior citizens--about 3.5 million people--live below the poverty line. That's less than the rate for other segments of society, notably children, but it is still disturbing.

How do elderly people fallthrough the cracks of what is supposed to be a "universal' program? The essayists in Burtless's book demonstrate that several sub-groups of elderly Americans are likely to go unprotected by the lattice of programs that form social security, Medicare, and private pensions.

For instance, Jerry A. Hausmanand Lynn Paquete of MIT point to blue-collar and agricultural workers--as usual, disproportionately black--whose poor health forces them to retire early, often in their 50s, occasionally in their 40s. Unable to haul themselves through mine shafts or break topsoil, they are not eligible for federal retirement benefits either. Social security only picks up the tab when they turn 62. The only federal monies they can claim are pitifully small disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income, the welfare component of Social Security. State unemployment and welfare programs are available, but notoriously meager. And unless they're in a union, they're not likely to have much of a pension. Until they turn 62, these laborers are forced to deplete their small savings, and as the authors note ominously, cut their food consumption by over 30 percent.

Their plight is likely to darken.The 1983 compromise that taxed social security and preserved across-the-board cost of living increases for even the wealthiest recipients, also raised the retirement age to 67 for those quitting work after the year 2000. A higher retirement age makes sense for most people, who are more fit at 65 than previous generations. But for the disabled worker, the years of vulnerability will grow longer. Unless something is done now, even more of the hardest working Americans will find themselves finishing their careers with nothing. To their credit, the authors propose a solution that deserves real consideration: a supplemental means-tested benefit for those who are forced to retire early.

Elderly widows are anothergroup at risk, even though the Social Security Act of 1935 was designed with them in mind. Today's system works against them. While 8 percent of married elderly women live below the poverty line, 31 percent of elderly widows do. The problem is scrimpy benefits. Widows receive about half the amount couples receive, but they cannot cut all their expenditures in half. They still have to maintain an apartment and pay for utilities on a single income.

The big problem with thisbook--and with much of what emanates from Brookings--is that it's tediously written and laden with mathematical equations. ("Where b( ) is the bivariate density function.') That's unfortunate because this book deserves an audience it probably won't get.
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cooper, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1987
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