The Rich Live Longer: So How Much Money 'Buys' 1 More Year of Life?

Climbing America's income ladder today is truly a game of life and delayed death—and thousands of dollars are separating the rungs. 

Richer people live longer lives.

It's true for both men and women. It's true at virtually every income level. And it was the backbone of one of the most striking charts I've seen this year in the Wall Street Journal, based on research by Brookings scholar Barry Bosworth.

And it made me wonder: If more money "buys" more life, how much extra income buys one more year of living?

Yep, it's a cheeky question. Everybody knows that money doesn't literally buy life, or inoculate against disease, or prevent random car accidents. But if Bosworth's data showed that average lifespans grow with income, I wondered how much additional income was associated with exactly one more year of living after 55.

I contacted Brookings for the raw data, ran the numbers, and doubled-checked with Bosworth. For middle-class men now in their mid-60s and older, each $4,000 of extra mid-career income correlated with an extra year of life after 55. "You can’t say that making a certain amount of dollars guarantees more life,” Bosworth said. "What’s fine for you to say is that where the [per-earner] income goes up by about $4,000, that was generally associated with living another year."

This number might sound a little small to you: Is a $40,000 raise really associated with an extra decade of life? Well, hold on.

First, Bosworth is measuring average per-adult earnings within households. That means if a husband is making $100,000 and the wife isn't working at all, the man's per-person income is really more like $50,000. To "gain" an extra year, he would actually have to earn an additional $8,000 for the entire household (which, divided into male per-adult earnings, would give you our $4,000 figure).

So perhaps it's more true to say that, for today's 60-somethings from single-earner households, an $8,000 raise in their 40s correlated with an extra one year of life in their 70s. (Clearly, this correlation doesn't hold once you get into the top quintile. Billionaires don't live for 2,000 years. Yet.)

What about today's prime-age workers? They're not retiring or dying yet, so we don't have any longevity data on them. But we can extrapolate.

Bosworth's research found that moving from the 20th percentile of earners to the 80th percentile is associated with an extra five years of life. Today, the gap between households at the 20th and 80th percentiles is about $75,000 (the gap between $20k and $95k). If today's prime-age workers have the same lifespan-by-income distribution as their parents, each additional $15,000 of total household income "buys" an extra year of life.

Ultimately, the precise number matters less than the message. Economic inequality wouldn't matter if it had nothing to do with well-being inequality. But it does. Climbing America's income ladder today is truly a game of life and delayed death—and there are many thousands of dollars separating the rungs.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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