Jonathan Chait

Playing Games With Life Expectancy

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 [Guest post by Matthew Zeitlin]

Some may object to dedicating a post to a tweet, but an argument advanced recently by Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who is ostensibly focused on “all things statistical,” is based on a wildly misleading interpretation of life expectancy statistics and presents a good opportunity to get into the actuarial weeds .

Blow objects to President Obama’s proposal, reported in the Huffington Post, to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, and one reason is that, “Deal pushes Medicare to 67 blk men are out. 67 is blk mens' life expt” [sic]. He then tweeted “Imagine paying into a program your whole life and then dying before you experience any of it's [sic] benefits. That isn't a 'balanced approach.'"

What Blow is arguing is that increasing the eligibility age for Medicare would have a disproportionately negative impact on African-American men compared to the rest of the population because their life expectancy is lower and thus have fewer years to utilize Medicare. When put that way, such a conclusion is obvious to the point of banality.

According to the most recent data I could find from the CDC, in 2006, the life expectancy for men at birth in 2006 was 75.1 years; for white men, it was 75.7 years; while for black men, it was 69.7 years. There is a real disparity between black men and white men, and the disparity is due to differences in health and social outcomes that you can read about here.

What’s most important for looking at Medicare is life expectancy for people who will actually utilize Medicare soon. And so when you look at life expectancy at age 65, white men are expected to live for another 17.1 years, while black men are expected to live for another 15.1  years. There’s still a two year gap, but it’s considerably narrower than the six year gap at birth. There is also the fact that black men at age 65 have a higher probability of dying in their 66th year than white men do. This gets to the overall gist of what Blow is saying, but he did not refer to death probability statistics.

Looking at those life expectancy numbers shows clearly that any significant implication of “Deal pushes Medicare to 67 blk men are out. 67 is blk mens' life expt” expect the obvious one that “raising the Medicare eligibility age will decrease utilization of Medicare” is at wrong, and at best understated.

If you read the introduction to the CDC Life Tables, you will clearly see the distinction between life expectancy at birth and life expectancy at any given age, which Blow blurs together for dramatic effect. One should expect better from someone whom America’s greatest newspaper entrusted with writing a blog called “On the Numbers.” Or, to be more charitable, perhaps the lesson is that it’s not best to discuss the social policy implications of actuarial tables when you only have 140 characters to do so.   

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