New evidence on the gap between rich and poor

retireeThe founders of our nation set out to create a place where people could build a life for themselves. Their original idea was that U.S. citizens would be free to pursue happiness and prosperity. But more than 200 years later, a body of evidence shows the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.

It’s not just that the rich are becoming more rich, and the poor becoming more poor.  A recent article in the New York Times describes two large-scale analyses that show, on the whole, poor people are dying younger than their more wealthy counterparts.

The first analysis, conducted by the U.S. Social Security Administration, uses a longitudinal sample of social security participants to measure life span and earnings. The study found that for men born from 1912 to 1941, the top half wage-earners experienced improvements in longevity — in other words, they were more likely to add years to their lives — compared with the bottom half of wage-earners. For example, for men born in 1912, the top half of wage-earners would live 1.2 years longer than those in the bottom half.  But for men born in 1941, the top half of wage-earners would live 5.8 years longer than the bottom half — a difference of 4.6 years.

The second analysis, conducted by the Brookings Institution, used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Social Security Administration to draw further conclusions about the connection between wages, retirement age and longevity.

That analysis found:

  • Low income workers tend to claim their pensions at younger ages, resulting in lower payouts.
  • From 1979 to 2012, income fell for the bottom 47 percent of wage earners, while it rose for people in the top 10 percent. In other words, the poor became poorer while the rich became richer.
  • The longevity gap between the rich and poor is more pronounced at either end of the spectrum. For example, a man born in 1920 in the top ten percent of income earners could expect to live about six years longer than a man born the same year in the bottom 10 percent. But if those same men were born in 1950, this gap more than doubles with the rich man living 14 years longer than the poor man. For women, the gap grew to 13 years, from 4.7 years.

Researchers have many ideas about the broader causes of this growing gap, but because it’s such a sweeping problem with many variables, it’s difficult to draw specific conclusions. Public health experts hypothesize that smoking plays a big role, because poorer people tend to smoke in larger numbers than their more wealthy counterparts. Poor people are more likely to abuse drugs and slightly more likely to suffer from obesity.

Whatever the causes, it’s clear: Being poor in America leads to an increased likelihood of health problems and an earlier death. With a presidential election on the horizon this year, this gap is certainly an issued I’d like the candidates to address.


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