Wednesday, November 4, 2020
Natasha Sarin (Penn) presents Social Security and Trends in Inequality (with Sylvain Catherine (Penn) & Max Miller (Penn)) virtually at UC-Irvine today as part of its Tax Policy Colloquium Series hosted by Joshua Blank, Victor Fleischer, and Omri Marian:
Recent influential work finds large increases in inequality in the U.S., based on measures of wealth concentration that notably exclude the value of social insurance programs. This paper revisits this conclusion by incorporating Social Security retirement benefits into measures of wealth inequality. Wealth inequality has not increased in the last three decades when Social Security is accounted for. This finding is robust to assumptions about how taxes and benefits may change in response to system financing concerns. When discounted at the risk-free rate, real Social Security wealth increased substantially from $4.8 trillion in 1989 to just over $41.3 trillion in 2016. When we adjust for systematic risk coming from the covariance of Social Security returns with the market portfolio, this increase remains sizable, growing from over $3.9 trillion in 1989 to $33.9 trillion in 2016. Consequently, by 2016, Social Security wealth represented 57% of the wealth of the bottom 90% of the wealth distribution.
We conclude that Social Security represents the main source of savings for most Americans. Measures of inequality that exclude it are misleading.