February 23, 2016
A recent study highlighted in the New York Times starkly showed how differences in life expectancy between the rich and poor in the United States have grown remarkably over the past few decades. Researchers at the Brookings Institute used data from the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study to compare life expectancy by levels of earnings for men and women born in 1920 and those born in 1940. Their analysis showed that for men born in 1920, there was a 6.2 year difference in life expectancy at age 50 between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. For men born only twenty years later in 1940, that difference had nearly doubled to 11.3 years. The increase was even greater or women: the difference increased from 4.7 years to 10.3 years.
These are striking data not only because of the large increase in disparity over time but also because of the sheer magnitude of the differences themselves: an over 10 year difference in life expectancy between rich and poor for those born in 1940. In men, this increase in the disparity occurred in the context of increases in life expectancy overall, but in women, as reported previously by other research, there appear to have been actual declines in life expectancy in lower income groups.