Get Rich or Die Younger: The Shrinking Life Spans of Poor U.S. Women

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
April 21 2014 5:58 PM

Get Rich or Die Younger: The Shrinking Lifes Spans of Poor U.S. Women

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Poor U.S. women are dying younger. And these guys still probably want to raise their retirement age.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty

Always remember kids: There’s more to life than making money, but making lots of money might buy you a longer life.

Jordan Weissmann Jordan Weissmann

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

Brookings economist Barry Bosworth has produced the grimmest analysis yet of the growing “longevity gap” between America’s rich and poor. Generally, it confirms that the more affluent you are, the longer you should live. But then there are these two big take-aways, captured in the Wall Street Journal graph below:

  1. Among men older than 55, life expectancies are growing fastest for the rich.
  2. Among women older than 55, life expectancies are growing for the rich and shrinking for the poor.
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WSJ

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Shrinking. That is simply horrifying. Thanks to analysis by the Social Security Administration, we’ve known for a while that male life spans were rising much quicker among the top half of earners than among the bottom half. But declining life expectancies are not supposed to be a first-world problem.

As Annie Lowrey has explained in the New York Times, it’s actually very difficult to say whether the growth of economic inequality has played any direct role in the diverging life spans of upper and lower income Americans. Wealth buys better access to medicine. But the rich and educated also tend to make healthier choices than less fortunate Americans. It could be that low-income women are making such poor lifestyle decisions that they are now shaving years off their expected longevity. Bosworth suggested to the WSJ that smoking might be a culprit.

But I would just like to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: Every time a politician says we need to raise the retirement age again because everybody is living so much longer, remember these graphs. It simply isn’t true. Moreover, because the poor live shorter lives, postponing benefits hits them the hardest. It's one of the cruelest ways you could cut a program meant to help the needy.

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