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The income gap plays out in U.S. life expectancy

REUTERS/Patrick Fallon
Add another grievance for those upset by U.S. income inequality: diverging life expectancies of rich and poor.

The Washington Post ran a troubling article last weekend that explains why raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare would be unfair to the poor.

For although many Americans are living longer than previous generations, the gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor in the U.S. is startling.

Post reporter Michael A Fletcher explains:

Even as the nation’s life expectancy has marched steadily upward, reaching 78.5 years in 2009, a growing body of research shows that those gains are going mostly to those at the upper end of the income ladder. …

A Social Security Administration study 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.

In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years longer for the highest socioeconomic group defined in a research study than the lowest, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. By 2000, the gap had grown to 4.5 years. …

Not only is life expectancy diverging by income level, but now some demographic groups — particularly low-income white women — are losing ground.

A study published last week in the journal Health Affairs said that in almost half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before. The counties where women’s life expectancy is declining typically are in the rural South and West, the report said.

“Life expectancy has increased mainly among the privileged class,” economist Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute told Fletcher. “For many people, raising the retirement age would amont to a significant benefit cut.”

Of course, as I’ve reported here before, U.S. life expectancy — even for our privileged class — is nothing to cheer about. A report published last January by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that people in the United States — including those who are “highly advantaged” (those with health insurance, for example, and who follow good lifestyle habits) — die at earlier ages than their peers in 16 other wealthy countries. The report called this the “American health disadvantage.”

In 2007, for example, U.S. males lived 3.7 fewer years than Swiss males, and U.S. females lived 5.2 fewer years than Japanese females.

Some researchers have predicted that overall U.S. life expectancy may actually start to decline by midcentury due to the rise in obesity and related health problems, such as type 2 diabetes.

FYI: While most Americans currently must wait until age 66 to start claiming full Social Security benefits, the age in Switzerland at which people can draw a full government pension is apparently 65 for men and 64 for women. In Japan, it was just raised to 65 this year.

You can read Fletcher’s article on the Post website.

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