The Poor Die Younger

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Income and wealth don’t trickle down. Neither do health and longevity.

Last week, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on the life expectancy of Americans, and what that means for Social Security. What the CRS reported is that just as economic inequality is increasing, so is lifespan inequality.

For men born in 1930, for instance, 50-year-old individuals in the highest income quintile (the wealthiest 20 percent) could expect to live 5.1 years longer than men in the lowest quintile. For men born in 1960, however, 50-year-olds in the highest quintile could expect to live 12.7 years longer than men in the lowest.

Apparently, all the advances in medical science and healthy living that occurred during this rolling 30-year interval were visited upon the rich a lot more than on the poor.

It’s the same story for women. For those born in 1930, the lifespan differential at 50 between rich and poor was 3.9 years. For those born in 1960, it had expanded to 13.6 years.

No one can look at these numbers and argue with a straight face that America isn’t riven by chasms of class that have grown steadily wider since the broadly shared prosperity of the postwar decades—a creation of New Deal reforms and a vibrant union movement—has faded into memory. To have been born in 1930 means to have spent young adulthood and middle age in the one period of U.S. history when median income rose steadily. To have been born in 1960 means to have spent young adulthood and middle age in a period when median income no longer rose at all, in which income flatlined save for the wealthy, who saw major income increases. For most Americans, the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the rise of global capitalism ushered in an age—which we have yet to exit—of stagnant incomes and, for many Americans, stagnant or declining lifespans.

These numbers also provide the larger context for such studies as those of Angus Deaton and Ann Case, which have shown lifespans shrinking in recent years within the white working class.

The CRS report also concludes that given the disparity between the lifespans of the affluent and the lifespans of the poor, the amount of Social Security that seniors collect over time also tilts increasingly to the well-off. One argument that the CRS doesn’t make, but which is screamingly clear from these numbers, is that raising the age of Social Security eligibility hits the poor far more than it does the rich. 

The CRS report is not only a formidable critique of our unique failure to provide universal health care. It also makes irrefutably clear that as wealth concentrates, health concentrates, and that ours is no country for the old—if they’re poor.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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