With more money and better access to resources, the wealthiest in society have always had an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to health. But with advances in medicine, healthcare and education, you’d expect that gap to be slowly closing, right? Not so, according to a study by the Brookings Institution of Washington D.C. which shows a growing disparity between the life expectancy of high- and low-income earners in the United States.
The Brookings researchers looked at two different population groups of individuals born in either 1920 or 1950 to see if there were any differences in longevity. The study showed that while average life expectancy has increased overall, it has done so at a lesser rate for those on a lower income. The most affluent 10 percent saw a 28 percent increase in longevity between the two study groups, while for the bottom 10 percent of earners the increase was a mere 3 percent. To put this into perspective, a wealthy man born in 1920 could expect to live six years longer on average than a poor man. But if born in 1950, that gap widens to 14 years. A similar trend was noticed in women too, with the gap widening from around 5 to 13 years over the same period.
The reasons for the increasing gap are as yet unclear, but it’s thought that lifestyle choices may be an influencing factor. The researchers believe that, generally speaking, affluent people tend to take more of an interest in their nutrition and engage in exercise, and are less likely to smoke, abuse illegal substances or become obese. Given the cost of healthcare and health insurance in the US, it’s entirely plausible that there’s some kind of link between the growth of income inequality and this widening gap in life expectancy. Not only are the poor getting poorer, they’re living shorter lives as well.
It’s also worth considering that higher income earners tend to delay retirement, allowing them to continue earning a salary and contributing to their pension funds. Lower income earners tend to retire earlier, which means they receive smaller regular payments as their pensions and Social Security funds are more spread out. The upshot of all this is that higher income earners tend to fare better in their later years, and are more likely to be able to afford life-extending healthcare and medicine right at the time they need it.
Given that life expectancy is increasing overall, policymakers are faced with the dilemma of what to do about the growing strain on Social Security. Trimming benefits is a possibility, but the team at Brookings offer a bleak vision of how this might affect the welfare of low-income retirees:
They will receive lower monthly payments from Social Security when compared with earlier generations of low-wage workers who retired at the same age … the gains in their life expectancy will not compensate them for the cut in their monthly benefit check
Q: What can be done about the growing income and life expectancy gaps? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This article was originally published February 29, 2016.