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Economic Well-Being - Explaining Differences In Economic Well-being

age aging social health households policies poor

Among older Americans, health status and access to health care have a substantial effect on economic well-being. According to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, health status definitely impacts economic well-being in old age, and inequality among the aged. For example, households where the head is aged seventy to seventy-nine and self-reports poor or fair health have a mean net worth of $225,462. This compares to $554,909 for heads aged seventy to seventy-nine that report good or excellent health, more than double their poor-health counterparts. The differences arise from two phenomena. One, health status has a significant impact on the number of hours worked during one's lifetime, which therefore affects past income, savings, and eventually net worth. Two, older households face higher out-of-pocket health costs, which deplete assets and, therefore, income from assets.

Aside from health status, often the same personal characteristics that are associated with low economic well-being in "young" households also contribute to low levels of economic well-being in old age. According to Census estimates, for both the older Americans and the young, the poor are overrepresented by female-headed households, households where the head did not attend any college, and households that are not white. The largest difference is the overrepresentation of minorities among the aged poor. While households headed by a non-white make up only 12.8 percent of older households, they make up nearly 29 percent of poor older households.

How could the economic well-being of older people be further improved? In the short run, such policies would involve either direct transfers, such as increased Social Security benefits, or policies that raise real interest rates, since the aged generate more of their income from returns on assets. These short-run policies would tend to come at the expense of the economic well-being of younger generations. In the long run, policies that insure stable incomes for older adults will serve to make their incomes more equal. The trend toward defined contribution pension plans and away from defined benefit plans (even Social Security may become a defined contribution plan) will likely add to inequality of outcomes, due to varying performances by households in investment markets, even if their effect on the overall well-being of older Americans as a group is unclear. Policies and programs that improve the physical health of the older adults would also lead to an improvement in financial health. Since so much of an individual's economic well-being in old age is determined by their financial preparation, policies that help promote sound financial planning for retirement, including policies encouraging workers to save, should increase overall well-being. It is unclear whether these types of policies increase inequality, however, since it is the members of society at the top of the distribution more likely to take advantage of such policies.

CHARLES B. HATCHER

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Federal Reserve Board. Survey of Consumer Finances. Washington, D.C.: Federal Reserve Board, 2000.

HURD, M. D. "Research on the Elderly: Economic Status, Retirement, and Consumption." Journal of Economic Literature 28, no. 2 (1990): 566–637.

SCHULZ, J. H. The Economics of Aging, 6th ed. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1995.

United States Census Bureau. Current Population Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 1999.

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