PolitiFact: Glenn Beck comes close on Social Security, life expectancy

The statement

"When Social Security started, age expectancy for the average man was 58. It was 62 — 62 for women."

Glenn Beck, Feb. 16 on his television show

The ruling

To show that Social Security today is not what President Franklin D. Roosevelt intended when he signed it into law in 1935, talk show host Glenn Beck claimed that its creators may have designed it so that many people would not live long enough to receive the benefits.

His point was that Social Security was not meant to benefit as many people as it does today. Indeed, Beck went on to say that if Roosevelt had passed the law now, the starting age would be around 80 years old, due to longer life expectancy.

We wondered if Beck was right about life expectancy in the 1930s.

Indeed, he was correct. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks birth and death data, says that a man born in 1935, on average, lived until he was 60; a woman typically lived until she was 64. So Beck's claims were just off slightly. And Beck was correct that an average person would die before Social Security took effect.

What about Beck's implication that the age was chosen so the majority of Americans would never receive their Social Security benefits? Was FDR making this calculation?

Probably not, said Edward Berkowitz, a professor on Public Policy at George Washington University and author of several books on Social Security. "I think that the age was chosen somewhat at random, certainly not to hedge actuarial bets."

Berkowitz thought that an alternative explanation for the age choice was that the Germans had a similar program that the Americans used as a model. Berkowitz also pointed out that the median age might not reflect real life expectancy because the number was skewed by a large share of infant deaths. "After you survive infancy, life expectancy goes up."

Of course, we can't be sure what FDR was thinking, but for our purposes, Beck's statement is off by just a couple of years and his overall point is right that life expectancy was below the retirement age of 65. That's close enough to earn a True.

Alex Holt, Times staff writer For more rulings, go to PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Glenn Beck comes close on Social Security, life expectancy 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 10:40pm]

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