Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

Lifetime Earnings Patterns, the Distribution of Future Social Security Benefits, and the Impact of Pension Reform

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

Lifetime Earnings Patterns, the Distribution of Future Social Security Benefits, and the Impact of Pension Reform

Article excerpt


Policymakers have long been interested in understanding the adequacy and distribution of Social Security benefits and in predicting the effects of reform on representative workers. This article describes two new methods for estimating the career profile of earnings for representative workers. It then compares the results of those new methods with earnings profiles assumed in traditional distributional analysis of Social Security and shows the implications of the new results for evaluating Social Security reform.


In order to assess the effect of Social Security reform on current and future workers, it is essential to accurately characterize the initial situations of representative workers affected by reform. For the purpose of analyzing typical reforms, the most important characteristic of a worker is the level and pattern of his or her preretirement earnings. Under the current system, pensions are determined largely by the level of the workers' earnings averaged over their work life. However, several reform proposals would create individual retirement accounts for which the pension would depend on the investment accumulation within the account. Thus, the pension would also depend on the timing of the contributions into the account and hence on the exact shape of the worker's lifetime earnings profile. Most analysis of the distributional impact of reform has focused, however, on calculating benefit changes among a handful of hypothetical workers whose relative earnings are constant over their work life. The earnings levels are not necessarily chosen to represent the situations of workers who have typical or truly representative earnings patterns. Consequently, the results of such analysis can be misleading, especially if reform involves introducing a fundamentally new kind of pension formula.

This article presents two broad approaches fb creating representative earnings profiles for policy evaluation. First, we use standard econometric methods to predict future earnings for a representative sample of workers drawn from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Our statistical estimates are based on a simple representation of typical career earnings paths and a fixed-effect statistical specification. Because our estimation file contains information on each worker's annual earnings from 1951 through 1996 as reported in the Social Security Administration's earnings files, we have a record (though an incomplete one) of the actual earnings that will be used to determine future benefit payments. Our estimates of the earnings function permit us to make highly differentiated predictions of future earnings for each member of our sample. By combining the historical information on individual earnings with our prediction of future earnings up through the normal retirement age, our first approach produces tens of thousands of predicted career earnings paths that can be used in microsimulation policy analysis.

Our second approach to creating lifetime earnings profiles is similar in some ways to the traditional method. For example, it is based on the creation of only a handful of "stylized" career earnings patterns. An important difference with the traditional method, however, is that we define the career earnings patterns so that they are truly representative of patterns observed in the workforce. We use simple mathematical formulas to characterize each stylized earnings pattern, and we then produce estimates of the average path of annual earnings for workers whose career earnings path falls within each of the stylized patterns we have defined. Finally, we calculate the percentage of workers in successive birth-year cohorts who have earnings profiles that match each of the stylized earnings patterns. Although this method may seem simple, it allows the analyst to create stylized earnings patterns that are widely varied but still representative of earnings patterns observed among sizable groups of U. …

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