How Economic Inequality Influences Life Expectancy

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Marie Arrasate, left, and Joan McGarr discuss the Social Security payment during an interview Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 at the Southwest Focal Senior Center in Pembroke Pines, Fla. There will be no cost-of-living increase for more than 50 million Social Security recipients next year, the first year without a raise since automatic adjustments were adopted in 1975. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Marie Arrasate, left, and Joan McGarr discuss their Social Security payments during an AP interview in 2009 at the Southwest Focal Point Senior Center in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

A new report by the Washington Post shows that the growing economic inequality in the United States affects the life expectancy of Americans in different income brackets. According to research at the University of Washington, women living in affluent St. Johns County, Fla., can expect to live to be 83 years old, four years longer than they did two decades ago. Male life expectancy has also improved — it’s more than 78 years, six years longer than 20 years ago.

But just next door, in less wealthy Putnam County, women can only expect to live to be 78, and men, 71 — representing an increase of only a year and a year and a half, respectively, over the same time period. In St. Johns County, life expectancies have increased by roughly four times more than in Putnam County over two decades.

The widening gap in life expectancy between these two adjacent Florida counties reflects perhaps the starkest outcome of the nation’s growing economic inequality: 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.

What accounts for the difference? This Washington Post infographic tells part of the story. In Putnam County, more people smoke, more people are obese and more people are uninsured.

Life Expectency

Washington Post. Click to enlarge.

Some have argued that raising the eligibility ages for Medicare and Social Security as a cost-cutting measure makes sense in terms of the national upward trend in life expectancy. Just this week, Rep. Paul Ryan released his 2014 federal budget proposal which would increase the eligibility age for Medicare from 55 to 56. And in January, a group of CEOs from American corporations put out an entitlement reform plan that would raise the age for Social Security benefits to 70. But a closer look at all the data shows that this would mean the very people that entitlements were created to benefit, would end up getting less.

“People who are shorter-lived tend to make less, which means that if you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of Global Policy Solutions, a public policy consultancy. “Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.”

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  • pgobrien

    Maybe they want us to die. Maybe we over populated and the dirty little secret it, they want more of us to die.

  • Bill Sell

    Medicare can be properly funded by allowing younger folks to buy into it, paying for it until they reach 65 at rates approximately the same as their customary private insurance premiums. By lowering the age, Medicare will enlarge the pool of healthy people who require fewer benefits.

  • Anonymous

    Although counter-intuitive,some economists have argued for lowering the age of Medicare eligibility because all too often the 50-somethings hang on for dear life until they qualify for Medicare. And then Medicare ends up footing the bill for diseases that could have been prevented with early interventions.

  • Jo Ann Vincent


  • destroyideas

    Lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 1 day old.

  • Ame Bible

    Depressing but fact and some people just don’t get it. Income inequality affects all & that includes middle class republicans & less fortunate republicans, that are helping to ensure prosperity for the wealthy republican by depriving themselves! Yes, they are depriving themselves by the sheer fact that they support elected officials that just care about the extreme wealthy & the well connected. Income inequality has no party label but these crazy republicans in Washington have their constituents believing that they should eat less, so their very wealthy counterparts eat more and have a better life! How do they buy that fanfluken? I don’t know!

  • Ame Bible

    There are plenty of remedies. No need to lower retirement age. It is pure hog wash! and Alan Greyson told you already back in 2010. The republican’s agenda is “DIE” and quickly at that.

  • Carolyn Mordecai

    Too bad our life expectancy can’t be based on the quality of our character, rather the being rich or poor.

  • zootscoot

    A case in point. My neighbor ended up with a systemic infection because he was 7 months from 65 when the first symptoms appeared. He was uninsured and didn’t get diagnosis or treatment. It started out as a simple fungal infection.

  • nevetsnidur

    The propaganda campaign against the struggling middle class, and the poor, is in full swing. They want to dehumanize us, as one does to an enemy in a war, so when they take away necessary programs while taking more money for themselves, they can do so with a feeling of self-righteousness.

  • Irene Chang

    Typo. Medicare eligibility age “from 65 to 66.” Increasing the Medicare eligibility age would be wrong and horrible for the poor and all the people who are sick and would wind up in emergency rooms with strokes, etc., for lack of early preventive care.

  • Tess Elliott

    The plain truth is that most of those people will also be forced out of the job market in their 50’s. Are they in a dream world? Right now, over half the people I know who had to work were forced off the job in their late 40-s and early 50’s. Unless they are not expendable, none of them are going to be working in their 60’s unless it’s at a McDonalds. What a world!

  • Tess Elliott

    Great idea!

  • oldirishman

    This says that we, as the middle class need to not smoke, not get obese, and MOST IMPORTNATLY, not vote for those who don’t advocate for universal health care, regardless of party! Raising the retirement age, for someone who works at a hard job, denys them a retirement!

  • oldirishman

    All to benefit the idle rich, who put their money in the Cayman Islands, instead of investing it in America!

  • Marcia Ming

    Thanks Bill Moyer for all of the valuable information you share. I’ll be happy when more people understand the real state of affairs in this country.

  • Jim Ryon

    Raising retirement age for social security to 70 is fine if one happens to be a senator, a congressman, a judge, a bank officer, or any job which, by nature, happens to of a sedentary nature. But most of us are roofers, policemen on the beat, school teachers, construction workers, retail workers, and have many other jobs which require physical endurance. Not many 69 years olds can or should be walking on cross beams of a construction site. Full social security should begin at age 65. We paid for it all of our working lives. I resent the term “entitlement”. Our benefits are something we earned.

  • NoDicePacMan

    ahh – who wants reach a “ripe old age” when they’re poor?

  • marq

    why didn’t the Putnam people do their homework, work harder, and save some of their money?

  • Ano Dyne

    Maybe because they made such low wages that they could barely afford to sustain themselves and their families.

  • Ano Dyne

    I don’t know if the process we now live with is the result of an actual agenda,
    but I do know that it is a manifestation of human behavior as we have conducted
    ourselves for many millenia. There have always been those who simply try to live
    their lives peacefully with others and strive with each other to be sure the
    community as a whole survives. Then, there are those who are driven to control
    the process.

    Our entire history has consisted of the conflict between
    these two personality types. Oversimplification? Maybe, but I think of this view
    as just being the way our history would look to an independent observer not familiar
    with the sordid details.

  • Ano Dyne

    And, who says they didn’t work hard enough? The hardest-working people I know (those who actually put their backs into their living, not those “sweating it out” in an air conditioned office thinking of new ways to make more profits at the expense of the workers) often make the lowest wages and have no health benefits.
    I marvel every day at the people I see around me who obviously live below the poverty line, but who somehow make it through every month, scrimping by buying the cheapest foods, keeping dying vehicles running and insured, living in houses or apartments which are in desperate need of repair. Lots of young couples with children never see each other because one works days and one works nights (and often have multiple jobs) so they don’t have to pay exorbitant day care costs. This is the future many Americans can look forward to now because of corporate risk-taking, fraud, tax evasion and simple greed, as well as a Congress which works hand-in-hand with those responsible for our economic instability; and, because they aren’t fortunate enough to afford a higher education without getting into deeper debt with no guarantee of a job when they graduate.

    I grew up below the poverty line and watched my mother stand on her aching knees and feet all day working as a beautician, prepare three meals a day and provide all the normal things a housewife did back in the 50s and 60s for a working husband and four children. All they ever could afford to give me in the way of support for my college education was $25.00 over the entire four years.

    The only way I could afford to go to college was to get mostly loans a few small scholarships and working two part-time jobs. Fortunately, the loans back then were the National Student Defense Loans, which charged a deeply discounted interest. I paid the loans off in 10 years, as expected, and worked hard doing it.

    Excuse me, but it really gets my blood boiling when I read comments such as yours that accuse the working poor of not working hard enough.

  • cemptor

    Everybody is screaming “Free Market and Capitalism”… Let them NEGOTIATE prices
    for services and prescription drugs. Add more auditors to prosecute the fraud. Revisit (remove) corporations feigning to be non-profits and it would probably be self supporting.

  • medicare sucks

    I work at a medical supplier and see the waste every day. We purchase a back brace for $85.00 and sell it for $999.00 because that is what Medicare pays for a back brace. We purchase an ankle brace for $50.00 and Medicare pays $400.00 for it. The waste is at the supplier level, including hospitals of course.

  • Jane Carroll

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  • Go Tohell

    Exactly. History repeats itself.

    It’s not that people are lazy, it’s that some people REALLY want slave labor.

  • Barbara F

    Putnam is a rural county where the job choice is to work picking fern or other farm worker type jobs, for the paper mill, or for the school system. The smart children leave the county to find good jobs. I retired here because it is beautiful; and my retirement dollars go further. Most adults with families work 2-3 jobs at minimum wage. Their plight and the plight of their children breaks my heart.

  • rick

    its ashame ours laws alows this to happen but will proscute the comman jack over the least thing. seams to me what legal for the elete is ilgeal for comman jack.