You might have seen this headline: "Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor Is Growing" in the New York Times. Once again researchers are documenting an expanding gap in life expectancy by socioeconomic status. The latest analysis, by the Brookings Institution, looks at the widening gap and examines its potential to increase income inequality in old age.
The Brookings study measures the life expectancy of two cohorts of men and women by earnings and educational attainment—those born in 1920 and those born in 1940, using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Among men in the HRS and SIPP samples, the researchers find life expectancy rising between the 1920 and 1940 cohorts regardless of socioeconomic status, but the rise is much larger for those at the upper end. In the lowest earnings decile of the SIPP sample, for example, the life expectancy of men born in 1920 was 74.3 years and climbed to 76.0 years in the 1940 cohort—a rise of 1.7 years. In the highest earnings decile, life expectancy climbed from 79.3 to 88.0 years—a rise of 8.7 years. The gap in life expectancy between the two deciles grew from 5.0 to 12.0 years between the 1920 and 1940 cohorts.
The pattern is the same for women, except life expectancy fell for those in the lowest earnings decile of the HRS sample between the 1920 and 1940 cohorts (from 79.0 to 76.7 years—a drop of 2.3 years). Those in the top decile saw the biggest gain, their life expectancy climbing from 83.7 to 87.0 years—a gain of 3.3 years. The gap in life expectancy between the two deciles climbed from 4.7 to 10.3 years between the 1920 and 1940 cohorts. The growing gap also emerges when the data are examined by educational attainment.
Does the growing gap in life expectancy by socioeconomic status (SES) mean Social Security benefits will disproportionately accrue to the rich rather than the poor? While this is a potential problem, it is "damped by the fact that low SES individuals tend to claim Social Security at younger ages while high SES workers are more likely to postpone retirement and benefit claiming," conclude the researchers.
Source: The Brookings Institution, Later Retirement, Inequality in Old Age, and the Growing Gap in Longevity Between Rich and Poor