clock menu more-arrow no yes

Here’s the worst new way inequality is showing up in America

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We’ve known for a long time that rich people can generally expect to live longer than poor people.

But a new report from the New York Times paints a much starker picture: Not only is there a longevity gap between rich and poor, but the gap is rapidly growing.

Even more so than income, a person’s lifespan is the most basic indicator of well-being, and poor people are losing ground. According to the Times, a 60-year-old in the upper 50 percent of incomes in 1970 could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a 60-yea-old born in the bottom half. By 2001, 60-year-old men in the top half were living 5.8 years longer.

That disparity marks a stark inequality that echoes the growing income gap central to this year’s presidential campaign. Fixing it, the Times suggests, will take much more than formulating new medications or fixing America’s health care system. The problems go much deeper:

At the heart of the disparity, said Elizabeth H. Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale, are economic and social inequities, "and those are things that high-tech medicine cannot fix."

Here are a few of the most puzzling quandaries the article raises about the disparity in life spans between the rich and poor:

  • The gap can’t be explained away by health care coverage, as surprisingly few deaths result from a lack of coverage.
  • It can’t be obesity, either. Obesity rates between the rich and poor have actually narrowed since 1990.
  • One factor does help explain the phenomenon: Rich people don’t smoke nearly as much as poor people do anymore.
  • The opioid epidemic has also hit impoverished white communities the hardest, a trend that is thought to contribute to the problem.
  • One interesting byproduct of the trend: As rich people live longer they collect more in Social Security benefits, further perpetuating the disparity.

Be sure to read the story in full to get a better sense for the scope of the problem.

Go deeper:

  • Here are 27 charts that explain how we die.
  • Do naked mole rats hold the key to the end of aging?

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.