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New Study Links Widening Income Gap With Life Expectancy


Rich people live longer than poor people, and that's much more true now than it was in the past. Here's what a new study by the Brookings Institution found. A wealthy American born in 1920 lived about six years longer than a poor American born the same year. But a wealthy American born in 1950 is now expected to outlive a poor man of the same age by 14 years. Gary Burtless, the study co-author, says that gap has grown for women, too.

GARY BURTLESS: There was a four-and-a-half year gap among women born in 1920 between the top and the bottom, but for women born in 1950, we expect that there will be a 13 year gap.

SHAPIRO: Why is this gap growing so quickly between life expectancy of rich and poor people?

BURTLESS: We don't know. More affluent Americans tend to engage more in systematic exercise. They are less likely to be obese. Their smoking rates are lower. Those differences can help account for why there is a difference in how long people live. However, they do not seem to account for more than about a fifth of the increase in mortality differences between affluent and less-affluent people. So something else is going on in the background. It could be that there are behaviors that we could not examine. None of our surveys that we have access to asked about people's use of illegal drugs. Possibly, it is simply the effect of growing income inequality over the course of people's lives.

SHAPIRO: I understand that growing income inequality would make more people poor or more people rich, but that doesn't necessarily explain why poor people might die 10 years earlier than wealthy people if just a decade ago the number was five years. Those are not the actual numbers, but I'm just saying hypothetically, here.

BURTLESS: It would help explain it if the gap between the incomes of the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent had been growing over time. And they have been growing.

SHAPIRO: I see. So rich people are richer, and poor people are poorer. So poor doesn't always mean the same thing, and rich doesn't always mean the same thing.

BURTLESS: That's right. Now, something society has done to try to reduce the impact of that on longevity - we have health insurance that certainly equalizes - it doesn't make absolutely equal, but it tends to equalize the spending and access to health care that people have. But it could be that those background factors that are determined by how unequal our incomes are are playing a bigger role nowadays compared with 40 years ago.

SHAPIRO: Talk about the implications of this for American society. For example, if wealthy people are living longer, that means Social Security will be disproportionately paid out to wealthy Americans.

BURTLESS: There is a difference between when people first claim pensions. Poorer people tend to claim them younger than older people. But these improvements in longevity have added greatly to the number of years that affluent Americans can expect to collect benefits at the further end of their life.

SHAPIRO: How can the U.S. narrow this gap?

BURTLESS: Well, I wish I could tell you. I would know more if we knew more about what, precisely, it is that accounts for this growing inequality in life spans. There's a lot of reasons to think that in the first half-century of the 20th century, these gaps were shrinking, but a lot of those gains seem to have been offset in the last 30 or 40 years when the gap has been widening. I wish I could tell you why, but it is still not clear.

SHAPIRO: That Gary Burtless, a Brookings economist and co-author of a new study about the growing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor Americans. Thanks for joining us.

BURTLESS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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