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National Study Highlights Importance of Public Programs in Narrowing Life Expectancy Gap

“The end game faced by American seniors is defined in part by an un-level playing field, filled with resource disparities operating on both the individual and neighborhood levels.” This theory described by sociologist Corey Abramson, that inequality shapes aging, gained momentum this week with the release of a major study on life expectancy inequality in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The study, “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014,” explores 1.4 billion tax and Social Security records over the course of fifteen years, to evaluate factors associated with differences in life expectancy.

Up to 15 Year Life Expectancy Gap between Wealthy and Poor

This incredibly precise analysis confirms there is a significant gap in life expectancy between wealthy and poor Americans. How wide is the gap? For men, as much as 15 years. The wealthiest men have an average life expectancy of 87.3 years, while the poorest American men have a mean life expectancy if 72.7 years.  For women, the disparity is 10 years; the mean life expectancy among the richest 1 percent of American women is 88.9 years, while the mean life expectancy among the poorest 1 percent of American women is 78.8 years.

Better Public Resources = Better Life Expectancy

While the confirmation of the inequality life gap is striking, so is the study’s affirmation of the importance of public programs and government support.  Specifically, in affluent cities with rich public resources, the life expectancy of lower income individuals was slightly higher than elsewhere in the country.  “Six of the top eight (city areas) for low-income life expectancies are in California, a state with a strong safety net,” notes the Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham in Washington Post. As Julia Belluz in Vox points out, researchers are not sure why low-income individuals live the longest in higher income places with generous government spending, but they “suspect it has to do with health-promoting public policies and better-funded public services in rich cities.”

The stark—and growing—disparity in life expectancy based on income is a serious challenge, and we must commit to reversing this trend. Yet, there is good news: when the safety net is strong, life is better for everyone. Nationally, we know that without public programs, like Social Security, the Supplemental Security Income program, and Medicare and Medicaid, senior poverty would be much worse. Thanks to these safety net programs, the official senior poverty measure fell from 35% in 1960 to 9 percent today.  As the JAMA study demonstrates, at a local level, investment in public services can lead to better outcomes.

At Justice in Aging, we use the power of law to strengthen the social safety net, and remove the barriers low-income seniors face in accessing public services. This recent study, and its 1.4 billion data points, underscores the importance of strengthening the quality of public programs and ensuring equal access to all seniors. We hope our work to improve health care and economic security will begin to narrow this disparity in life expectancy.


Photo courtesy of Louis Kravitz

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