The existence of a growing gap in longevity between the rich and the poor is clearer than ever: Between 1930 and 1960, men at the top of the economic ladder saw an eight-year increase in life expectancy, while men at the bottom saw virtually no change. That’s just one finding from the National Academy of Science, which has documented how the growing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. has been accompanied by, and perhaps is actually causing, an increasing gap in life expectancy between the wealthy and the working class.
For men born in 1930 who lived in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution, life expectancy at age 50 was 76.6 years; for those born in 1960, it was mostly unchanged at 76.1. For men who lived in the top 20 percent of the income distribution, it was a different story: Their respective life expectancy numbers jumped from 81.7 to 88.8. (A similar gap grew between white and black people, and the trends for women were about the same, but not as dramatic.)
Certainly, retirement has become more democratic since Social Security was passed in 1935, guaranteeing a stable income to all retired Americans. And cleaner air, cleaner water, and anti-smoking campaigns have greatly increased life expectancy. But while the National Academy’s research doesn’t establish causal links, it demonstrates an insidious new form of inequality that has serious implications for retirement security—including Medicare, Social Security, and pensions—and long-term care.