The Brookings Institution recently issued a report showing that poor Americans die at a much earlier age than rich Americans, and that this life expectancy gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly. A professor of public health at Yale University told the New York Times, “It’s embarrassing.”
Yes, it is.
It’s also a tragedy. Forty-six million Americans live in poverty, including more than one child in five. These adults and children are experiencing a difficult life. They’re also more likely to face a premature death.
Despite advances in the health sciences, the situation is getting worse. According to the Brookings study, men in the bottom 10 percent of income born in 1920 were expected to live six years less than men in the top 10 percent. But for men born 30 years later, in 1950, that difference had risen to 14 years. The poorest group of women born in 1950 can expect to live 13 years less than their wealthy counterparts, up from 4.7 years for those born 30 years earlier.
In other words: Over three decades, the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest among us has more than doubled for both men and women.
Every year that is taken from these Americans is a loss, not just for them, but for the people who care about them. It is one more year of grief and emptiness – for husbands and wives, children and grandchildren, neighborhoods and communities.
In a related finding, the Social Security Administration found that the life expectancy gap between 60-year-old men in the top and bottom halves of the income ladder grew from 1.2 years in the early 1970s to 5.8 years by 2001.
Some people point to smoking as a possible cause for this growing gap, since wealthier people are more likely to give up the habit, but the numbers show that this only accounts for a fifth to a third of the difference. Nor is it explained by obesity, since obesity rates aren’t that much different for wealthier and poorer Americans (31 percent of the poor and 27 percent of the wealthy were obese in 2010).
African Americans have always fared worse than whites when it comes to longevity. And now an epidemic of so-called “deaths of despair” – including deaths from alcoholism, overdose and suicide – is shortening the life spans of economically struggling middle-aged white Americans with a high school education or less.
Overall life expectancy in the United States compares poorly to that of other wealthy countries, despite wealthy Americans’ long lifespans, because poor Americans fare so much worse than the average residents of other developed nations.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Canada is doing an excellent job of improving longevity in the very poorest urban neighborhoods, where a study showed that men experienced the biggest declines in deaths from heart disease between 1971 and 1996. And low-income residents of Toronto are more likely to survive cancer than low-income residents of Detroit.
The growing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor in the United States can be reversed, by doing what Canada and every other developed nation on earth has already done: providing health care to everyone as a basic human right. Among other things, that means addressing the political corruption that allows pharmaceutical companies to get away with charging $1,000 per pill for life-saving medication. Drug prices in the United States are higher than any other country on earth, which makes it difficult for many lower-income people to take needed medications.
We should also increase Social Security benefits, which are low in comparison to other advanced nations. Older and disabled Americans should not be forced to choose between an adequate diet, decent housing, or needed health care.
More broadly, a comprehensive economic program is needed to end the pervasive sense of hopelessness and dread that strikes individuals, families and communities when there are no jobs to be had at livable wages.
Until these steps are taken, it’s likely that this nation’s growing inequalities in wealth and income will continue to give rise to the most unjust inequality of all: an inequality in life itself.