News & Politics

Transit Talks: Death Un-Benefit


It’s no mystery that the transit contract talks are bogged down over the MTA’s proposal to require future workers to wait until age 62 rather than 55 to receive full pensions. As people live longer, public and private sector employers are trying to limit their obligations to retirees. But not everyone lives as long as everyone else. So the Transit Workers Union’s vow that, in the words of president Roger Toussaint, “We will not sell out the unborn” could use an addendum: “—and especially the nonwhite unborn.”

Life expectancy is indeed going up (having increased by about 3.2 years since the 1980 transit strike) and is rising across races and genders. But white people still live a lot longer than blacks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in 2000, white males could expect to live 74.8 years. But their black counterparts could hope to enjoy six fewer years (68.2). White women might bet on making it to 80, but black women could safely wager only on hitting about 75.

These disparities raise the racial stakes when you start talking about raising the retirement age. Let’s say the TWU agreed to a higher retirement age—a compromise figure, 60 years old. The CDC stats suggest that 86 percent of white men will be around to collect at that age, but only 73 percent of black men. The figures are 92 percent and 84 percent for white and black women, respectively.

These demographic facts translate into dollars and cents. If MTA workers have to be older to collect their pensions, proportionately fewer blacks will see the money than whites, and in effect will forsake their shares of the benefits that they’ve not only earned by working but also helped to fund through paying fares and taxes. And, of course, there’ll be less time for playing with the grandkids, watching “Matlock,” and doing absolutely nothing#&151;the rights we all expect to exercise once we strap on the gold watch.

One more piece of death trivia that underlies the MTA talks: For each age that retirement is put off, the stakes rise for all workers. Among all people, the probability of dying at age 55 (if you’ve made it there) is about seven tenths of one percent. The risk of dying while 62 years old is almost double, 1.3 percent.

Sure, it’s still a small number. But dying? That’s big.

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