Longitudinal Determinants of End-of-Life Wealth Inequality

42 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2017

See all articles by James M. Poterba

James M. Poterba

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics

Steven F. Venti

Dartmouth College - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

David A. Wise

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: September 2017

Abstract

Inequality in wealth among elderly households, and in particular the prevalence of very low wealth holdings, can be an important consideration in the design of social insurance programs. This paper examines the incidence and determinants of low levels of financial and total wealth using repeated cross-sections of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and a small longitudinal sample of HRS respondents observed both at age 65 and shortly before death. Most of those who report very low wealth holdings at the end of their life had little wealth at the traditional retirement age of 65. There is strong persistence over time in reports of very low wealth, and more generally relatively little evidence that wealth is drawn down in the first 15 years of retirement. The age-specific probability of reporting low wealth increases slowly after age 65. Low lifetime earnings are strongly predictive of low wealth at retirement and at the end of life. The post-retirement onset of a major medical condition, and, for married women, the loss of their spouse, are both associated with small increases in the probability of reporting very low wealth, but they account for a small fraction of low-wealth outcomes. Low levels of wealth accumulation before age 65, rather than gaps in the safety net after 65 or rapid spend-down of accumulated assets, appear to be the primary determinant of low levels of wealth just before death.

Suggested Citation

Poterba, James M. and Venti, Steven F. and Wise, David A., Longitudinal Determinants of End-of-Life Wealth Inequality (September 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23839. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3042404

James M. Poterba (Contact Author)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics ( email )

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Steven F. Venti

Dartmouth College - Department of Economics ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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David A. Wise

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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