The Rich Are Living Longer: A Lot Longer Than the Poor

Rich men average 12 years longer; rich women average 10 years more.



A new report from the Brookings Institution parses social security data to discover that the disparity in longevity between the rich and the poor has been growing. The researchers looked at life expectancy at age 50 by income levels comparing those born in 1920 with those born in 1940. Among other things that they found is that average life expectancy for women in the bottom tenth (80 years) of the income distribution did not change. On the other hand, life expectancy for women in the top tenth of the 1940 cohort rose by 6.4 years; from just over 84 years to 90.5 years. 

The results were similar for men. Life expectancy at 50 for men in the bottom tenth of income distribution actually did rise by 1.7 years whereas men in the top tenth gained 8.7 years life expectancy. Overall, life expectancy for poor men in the 1940 cohort averaged 76 years compared to 88 years for men in the top tenth of income distribution.

So why is the longevity gap between the rich and poor growing? One big factor is that the rich smoke much less. The New York Times notes that obesity doesn't seem to be much of a factor since rates of obesity among the rich and the poor have been converging. I have earlier reported on research that finds that drug overdosing, suicides, and chronic liver diseases are increasing mortality rates among poor whites. Interestingly, a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study concluded that lack of access to health care accounted for only about 10 percent of premature deaths.


One question not asked was are the poor sicker because they are poor or are they poor because they are sicker? It could be the case that modernity has eliminated many of the earlier causes of premature death, e.g., infectious diseases and accidents, thus revealing innate health disparities that affect the ability of people to earn incomes. People who suffer from chronic diseases earlier in life are more likely to earn less money than are their healthier fellow citizens.

The Brookings report also observes that because the rich are living longer, they will get much more out of Social Security than their poorer fellow citizens. The researchers note, "Even though the formula that determines monthly Social Security pensions is progressive, a growing share of the progressivity is offset on a lifetime basis by the growing difference between the post-retirement life spans of low- and high-wage workers." In addition, poorer Americans tend to retire earlier which also reduces their Social Security payouts. So proposals to raise the age at which Social Security benefit payments begin would disproportionately impact poorer Americans.