We Know About Income Inequality. Now It’s Time to Talk About Lifespan Inequality.

A blog about business and economics.
March 17 2014 1:44 PM

We Know About Income Inequality. Now It’s Time to Talk About Lifespan Inequality.

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These guys want to raise the retirement age. Please ignore them.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On average, Americans live longer if they are rich than if they are poor. As the income gap in the U.S. has widened over the past 30 years, so too has the “longevity gap,” as Annie Lowrey puts it in a New York Times article published over the weekend.

Here’s the money stat: Once they reach age 65, men who are in the top half of earners live about six years longer today than they did in the 1970s. But men who are in the bottom half of earners only live 1.3 years longer than they did 40 years ago. (The Social Security Administration hasn’t analyzed data for women, because of their changing work habits.) For all we hear about rising life expectancies, the reality is that only half the population seems to be reaping the gains. Aaron Carroll of the Incidental Economist captured the trend some years ago in the very simple chart below.

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But the pattern also shows itself geographically. As depicted in this Times graphic, Americans in the country’s wealthiest counties are living several years longer than a quarter century ago and are pulling away from Americans who live in the poorest counties.

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Graphic: New York Times

Lowrey’s piece explores whether our diverging lifespans can be blamed directly on our diverging incomes. It’s a tricky question to answer. On the one hand, high earners have access to better medical care, can afford healthier lifestyles, and tend to work in less physically grinding jobs. Poverty also leads to stress, which can lead to life-shortening health conditions like hypertension. All of that suggests a link. The wealthy tend to be better-educated, which also corresponds with a longer lifespan. The geographical data is hard to parse because generally healthy people might simply choose to live in communities near each other. As Lowrey writes, “It is hard to prove causality with the available information.”

Regardless of why the longevity gap is widening, though, the mere fact that it is really, really needs to be driven into Capitol Hill’s hive mind, so that centrist politicians will stop pretending that raising the retirement age for Social Security is some sort of responsible sacrifice that would fall on all Americans equally. It isn’t. As Kevin Drum and others have written, the idea really just “screws the poor.” Since low-income workers have shorter lifespans, pushing retirement further away ends up cutting their total benefits disproportionately. If raising taxes isn't on the table, Washington could try to tinker with the benefits formula or make Social Security a bit less generous to high earners. But in any event, it's a bit nuts to “fix” a program meant to alleviate elder poverty in a way that most hurts the elder poor.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

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