ARBOR OUTLOOK: Longevity, Upton Sinclair and Eddie Cantor’s ‘Nertz’

Margaret R. McDowell

“Our highways and bridges are falling apart

Who’s blessed and who has been cursed?

There’s things to be done all over the world

But let’s rebuild America first.”

— “America First” by Merle Haggard

Question: Residents of which southern state enjoy the longest life expectancy at 79.7 years?

Answer: Florida. That’s right, we Floridians live longest among southern states. By contrast, the life expectancy in Mississippi (last among the 50 states) is only 74.8. Hawaiians live longest — an expected 81.5 years. Aloha.

Life expectancy continues to increase. The obvious economic corollary is that increased longevity places greater financial stress on the coffers of Social Security and Medicare. And, partly because of our relatively friendly immigration policies, our overall population continues to grow.

When Social Security was adopted in 1935, “there were 34 nations already operating some form of social insurance program (most were contributory programs …),” according to the U.S. Social Security website.  U.S. city living conditions were generally unhealthy, though, and life expectancies short. In 1920, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time. But city living wasn’t nearly as conducive to longevity as being down on the farm.

Enter the “muckrakers,” journalists who focused attention on political, economic and social injustice in our burgeoning urban centers. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed unsanitary practices in the meat-packing industry. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 soon followed.

“Thanks primarily to better health care and sanitation, and the development of effective public health programs, Americans began to live significantly longer. In three short decades, 1900-1930, average life spans increased by 10 years,” states the Social Security website. “This was the most rapid increase in life spans in recorded human history.” Due to these better health conditions and the continued arrival of millions of immigrants, the U.S. population increased from 76 million in 1900 to 123 million by 1930.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the downturn hurt all classes economically (Eddie Cantor’s “Cheer Up, Smile, Nertz!” was directed at the entire nation), but was particularly devastating to America’s elderly.

“The best estimates are that over half of the elderly in America lacked sufficient income to be self-supporting,” statistics again attributable to the Social Security website. State-run elderly pension plans existed, but benefited only a tiny minority. Temporary New Deal agencies like the CCC and WPA hired Americans to build infrastructure, but Social Security created a contributory retirement pension program. And it stuck.

In 1935, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was only 62. So the number of Americans receiving benefits as well as dollars paid out was a lot smaller then, both in terms of the general population size and in the expected longevity of life.

Next week: The future of U.S. Social Security.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, a syndicated economic columnist, chartered financial consultant and accredited investment fiduciary, is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a fee-only and fiduciary registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.