The growing life-expectancy gap between rich and poor

Gary Burtless

Researchers have long known that the rich live longer than the poor. Evidence now suggests that the life expectancy gap is increasing, at least here the United States, which raises troubling questions about the fairness of current efforts to protect Social Security.

There’s nothing particularly mysterious about the life expectancy gap. People in ill health, who are at risk of dying relatively young, face limits on the kind and amount of work they can do. By contrast, the rich can afford to live in better and safer neighborhoods, can eat more nutritious diets and can obtain access to first-rate healthcare. People who have higher incomes, moreover, tend to have more schooling, which means they may also have better information about the benefits of exercise and good diet.

Although none of the above should come as a surprise, it’s still disturbing that, just as income inequality is growing, so is life-span inequality. Over the last three decades, Americans with a high perch in the income distribution have enjoyed outsized gains.

Using two large-scale surveys, my Brookings colleagues and I calculated the average mid-career earnings of each interviewed family; then we estimated the statistical relationship between respondents’ age at death and their incomes when they were in their 40s. We found a startling spreading out of mortality differences between older people at the top and bottom of the income distribution.

For example, we estimated that a woman who turned 50 in 1970 and whose mid-career income placed her in the bottom one-tenth of earners had a life expectancy of about 80.4. A woman born in the same year but with income in the top tenth of earners had a life expectancy of 84.1. The gap in life expectancy was about 3½ years. For women who reached age 50 two decades later, in 1990, we found no improvement at all in the life expectancy of low earners. Among women in the top tenth of earners, however, life expectancy rose 6.4 years, from 84.1 to 90.5. In those two decades, the gap in life expectancy between women in the bottom tenth and the top tenth of earners increased from a little over 3½ years to more than 10 years.

Our findings for men were similar. The gap in life expectancy between men in the bottom tenth and top tenth of the income distribution increased from 5 years to 12 years over the same two decades.

Rising longevity inequality has important implications for reforming Social Security. Currently, the program takes in too little money to pay for all benefits promised after 2030. A common proposal to eliminate the funding shortfall is to increase the full retirement age, currently 66. Increasing the age for full benefits by one year has the effect of lowering workers’ monthly checks by 6% to 7.5%, depending on the age when a worker first claims a pension.

For affluent workers, any benefit cut will be partially offset by gains in life expectancy. Additional years of life after age 65 increase the number years these workers collect pensions. Workers at the bottom of the wage distribution, however, are not living much longer, so the percentage cut in their lifetime pensions will be about the same as the percentage reduction in their monthly benefit check.

Our results and other researchers’ findings suggest that low-income workers have not shared in the improvements in life expectancy that have contributed to Social Security’s funding problem.

It therefore seems unfair to preserve Social Security by cutting future benefits across the board. Any reform in the program to keep it affordable should make special provision to protect the benefits of low-wage workers.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times