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The Changing Landscape of American Life Expectancy

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Ryan Nunn, and Lauren Bauer

Introduction

Life expectancy—the average remaining years an individual of a particular age can be expected to live—is perhaps the most valuable indicator of social progress. In the past 100 years Americans have enjoyed an overall gain of about 25 years in life expectancy at birth. Many of us take for granted the continuous improvement in life expectancy that much of the industrialized world has experienced over the past several centuries. These gains are the result of deliberate individual and social efforts that must be reinforced through continued private and public investments.

Some recently documented trends in U.S. life expectancy are encouraging. Life expectancy at birth continues to increase, and mortality has generally declined; for some populations mortality has fallen dramatically in recent years. Mortality for blacks, and particularly for black men, has been decreasing in recent decades, with the mortality rate for black men age 45–54 falling by about a third from 1999 to 2014. Mortality among children overall has fallen, and at the same time the inequality in children’s mortality by income level has declined.

Despite our progress, some improvements have yet to reach more-vulnerable populations. Low-income workers have experienced stagnating or even falling life expectancy over the past 30 years and mortality rates have increased for middle-aged whites by about 10 percent over 1999–2014.

These trends demand that we continue to focus our attention on investing in the health and well-being of all Americans. In acknowledging disparities in life expectancy trends, we should also evaluate the fairness and effectiveness of our existing policies, including investments in social insurance programs. Because it reflects the state of economic growth and the extent to which the entire population participates in that growth, life expectancy relates directly to core concerns of The Hamilton Project. In this framing paper we consider a number of policies that are relevant to life expectancy trends and suggest reforms aimed at extending life expectancy gains.

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