FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Death Gap

Rich people live longer than poor people. No big news there — we’ve known that health tracks wealth for quite some time now.

But here’s what we haven’t known: The life-expectancy gap between rich and poor in the United States is actually accelerating.

Since 2001, American men among the nation’s most affluent 5 percent have seen their lifespans increase by more than two years. American women in that bracket have registered an almost three-year extension to their life expectancy.

Meanwhile, the poorest five percent of Americans have seen essentially no gains at all.

Now a three-year gain in average lifespan might not, at first glance, seem earth-shakingly significant. But consider this: If doctors could by some miracle suddenly cure all cancer, federal health officials tell us, the average overall American life expectancy would increase by just three years.

In other words, as MIT’s Michael Stepner puts it, the changes in life expectancy we’ve witnessed over the last 15 years rank as “the equivalent of the richest Americans winning the richdontalwayswar on cancer.”

The gap widens to a chasm when you look at the 1 percent.

Forty-year-old American women among our nation’s top 1 percent can now expect to live 10 years longer than women of the same age in America’s poorest 1 percent. For men, the gap has grown even wider — to 15 years.

All these stats come from a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This new research combines IRS tax records with Social Security Administration mortality data to paint a deeply unnerving picture of 21st-century life and death.

That poor Americans “have 10 or 15 fewer years of life,” notes Stepner, a co-author of the study, “really demonstrates the level of inequality we’ve had in the United States.”

So what do we do about this inequality?

Stepner and his colleagues belong to the “practical politics” camp. They see inequality as too entrenched to take head-on. Better, they advise, to spend money on social services for the poor and promote healthy behaviors like not smoking and eating wisely. Poor Americans, they note, live longer in unequal places — like New York City — that take this approach.

But other analysts are pushing back on this perspective. Focusing on the unhealthy behaviors of the poor, they argue, lets the rich — and their political pals — off the hook.

People who engage in unhealthy habits, these analysts point out, don’t smoke or do drugs or overindulge in junk food because they don’t know enough to protect their health. They engage in these habits because they’re seeking relief from the stresses of everyday life.

Deeply unequal societies, researchers have documented over the past four decades, generate far more of these stresses than more equal societies. And this greater stress affects everyone, the affluent included.

In places where the wealthiest don’t make all that much more than everyone else, where you stand on the economic ladder doesn’t make all that much of a difference. You’re not going to obsess — and stress — about it.

In deeply unequal societies, it’s a different story. If you have money in these societies, you’re going to worry about losing it. If you don’t have money, you’re going to feel intense pressure to get it.

Amid all this stress, people will naturally seek relief. The affluent can afford to get this relief from behaviors that support their health. They can go to spas and country clubs. And if they should veer off onto some health-threatening path, they can always afford a stint in a luxury rehab center.

Poor people don’t have those options. So the gap between how long they live and how long the rich live continues to widen. If we want to change that dynamic, we have only one choice: We have to confront, not accept, inequality.

This column is distributed by OtherWords.org.

More articles by:

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press). 

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Glenn Sacks
Teachers Strike Dispatch #8: New Independent Study Confirms LAUSD Has the Money to Meet UTLA’s Demands
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail