The Elderly Are Probably Better Off Than We Think

Tyler Cowen points me today to a new Census Bureau report that suggests the elderly are better off than we think. Why? Because when they respond to surveys, they don’t accurately report pension income:

The Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC) is the source of the nation’s official household income and poverty statistics. In 2012, the CPS ASEC showed that median household income was $33,800 for householders aged 65 and over and the poverty rate was 9.1 percent for persons aged 65 and over. When we instead use an extensive array of administrative income records linked to the same CPS ASEC sample, we find that median household income was $44,400 (30 percent higher) and the poverty rate was just 6.9 percent….The discrepancy is mainly attributable to underreporting of retirement income from defined benefit pensions and retirement account withdrawals.

Here’s the key pair of charts for people 65 years and older:

It’s surprising how hard it is to get data on pension income in particular and the income of the elderly in general. For past years, the data often just doesn’t exist, and for more recent years the data is full of problems. However, this study doesn’t surprise me. After spending a lot of time diving into what data exists, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, the elderly are (a) better off than we think and (b) have seen their income rise considerably more than any other age group over the past couple of decades. More details here.

The poorest elderly—primarily folks who spent their working lives at low-income jobs and now rely solely on Social Security—are truly in need, and their Social Security payments ought to be increased by a third or so. We also ought to do something about long-term nursing care, which can quickly bankrupt even the well-off elderly.

Those two things are what progressives should focus on, not on the mythical “retirement crisis.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.