Economic Inequality Contributes to Gap in Life Expectancy

Economic inequality contributing to gap in life expectancy

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Overall life expectancy has improved substantially since the first Social Security payments were made in 1940.

  • In 1940, a 65 year old man could expect to live 12.7 years, and a woman,  14.7 years.
  • In 2010, this expanded to 18.6 years for men, and 20.7 years for women.

Improving life expectancies led lawmakers in 1983 to slowly move the age people could receive full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67.  Today, as the cost of benefits has increased, there is talk of now raising the retirement age for both Medicare and Social Security. Is this a good idea? Research suggests not.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article in the Washington Post highlights research showing that the gains in life expectancy in the U.S. are going mostly to upper income households.

According to research at theUniversity of Washington, people living in the prosperous community of St. John’s are living well and long:

  • St. John’s women live to nearly 83, four years longer than they did just two decades earlier.
  • St. John’s men live to over 78 years, six years longer than two decades ago.

Compare this to neighboring Putnam County, where incomes and housing values are about half what they are in St. Johns. There life expectancy hasn’t significantly improved since 1989.

  • Putnam women’s life expectancy has risen less than a year to just over 78.
  • Putnam men’s life expectancy has risen by a year and a half to about 71.

Putnam women live 5 years less, and men, 7 years less. And a growing body of research supports these findings around the country.

For instance, a Social Security Administration study done several years ago found that the life expectancy of male workers retiring at 65 had risen six years in the top half of the income distribution, but only 1.3 years in the bottom half over the previous three decades.

And the gap is growing. According to a research study report by the Congressional Budget Office:

  • In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years longer for the highest socioeconomic group.
  • By 2000, the gap had grown to 4.5 years.

Where You Live Makes a Difference

How long will youlive — and how well?

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County health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show that there is one primary care physician for every 2,623 residents in Putnam county, whereas in St. Johns, there are more than double the ratio of family doctors, one for every 1,067. Additionally, in St. Johns, residents are more likely to seek out information to bolster their health, and are more likely to follow doctors’ orders. Joe Gordy, chief executive of Flagler Hospital, which is in St. Johns County says:

Being more affluent and educated, you are likely to have better access to information and you are also more likely to want it.

In fact, a recent study published in the journal Health Affairs finds that in almost half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before – typically in the rural South and West, where there are few good jobs and little access to medical care. Jeff Feller, chief executive officer of WellFlorida Council describes this as “the Southern disease belt.” He states:

You just have to look at the socioeconomic and demographic differences–unemployment, education levels, income…to understand what is going on. This is fueled by poor economics and a lack of access to health insurance and health coverage.”

Implications for Economic Policy

As politicians debate raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare due to longer life expectancies (currently 65 for Medicare and moving toward 67 for full Social Security benefits) that policy decision would result in fewer benefits for lower-income workers, who tend to die younger. Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of public policy consultancy Global Policy Solutions, says:

If you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people. Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.

In short, raising the retirement age would amount to a significant benefit cut for all but those in the most privileged class, a form of class discrimination.

Furthermore, as healthcare is the biggest driver of American budget deficits, and the U.S. healthcare system has surprisingly low outcomes compared to healthcare expenditures, it makes little economic sense to raise the qualification age for Medicare, as this would only contribute to worsening outcomes and further fuel escalating healthcare costs for all.