Longevity Inequality Is Increasing: The Rich Get Older, the Poor Die Younger

New research from the Brookings Institute shows that gains in longevity have been unequal between the rich and poor over the past three decades.


hile it’s no surprise to researchers that the rich live longer than the poor, the life expectancy gap between the haves and have-nots in the United States is widening alongside income inequality, according to new research from the Brookings Institute.

“There’s nothing particularly mysterious about the life expectancy gap,” Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and one of the researchers in the study, wrote in an Los Angeles Times opinion piece, arguing that the growing life expectancy gap points to the urgent need to address questions around access to U.S. social security.

“People in ill health, who are at risk of dying relatively young, face limits on the kind and amount of work they can do,” Burtless explained. “By contrast, the rich can afford to live in better and safer neighborhoods, can eat more nutritious diets and can obtain access to first-rate health care.”

According to the study, the life expectancy gap between the bottom and top 10 percent of income earners increased from three and a half to 10 years for women and five to 12 years for men between 1970 and 1990.

“Recent gains in life expectancy have tended to favor men and women who have high lifetime earnings or other indicators of economic and social advantage,” reads the report.

Burtless argued that proposals to address funding shortages in U.S. social security would disadvantage low-wage workers by extending working years longer and closer to their life expectancy, while high-income earners would still have the benefit of longevity.

Those who recognize longevity inequality argue that the poor shouldn’t have to work their whole lives so the rich can play in their old age, enjoying the fruits of working-class labor through their pensions as they live out their longer life expectancy.

“The disparity in wages during the working years leads to greater differences in pensions and other forms of wealth accumulation for retirement,” the report reads.

According to U.N. population data, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years, or 76.5 years for men and 81 years for women.

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