Gap Between Rich and Poor Now Includes Much Longer Lifespans

April 18, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Photo credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT

According to new research from MIT, income equality goes far beyond disparities in financial success and education.

Income inequality has become an increasingly popular topic in the last few years with various political factions arguing over the severity of the issue or even the existence of it. But a massive new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shown that by large amounts, wealthy individuals are significantly outliving their poor counterparts.

“As you go up in the income distribution, life expectancy continues to increase, at every point in the income distribution,” said Michael Stepner, a doctoral candidate in MIT's Department of Economics and co-author of the study.

Looking at 1.4 billion anonymized income tax filings from the federal government, combined with mortality data from 2001 through 2014 from the Social Security Administration, MIT researchers found that in the U.S., the richest 1 percent of men live 14.6 years longer on average than the poorest 1 percent of men, while among similarly wealthy women the difference is 10.1 years on average.

And what’s worse, the lifespan gap is growing rapidly.

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According to the researchers, over the last 15 years, life expectancy increased by 2.34 years for men and 2.91 years for women who are among the top 5 percent of income earners in America, but there was only a 0.32- and 0.04-year increase for men and women in the bottom 5 percent of the income tables.

"That change over the last 15 years is the equivalent of the richest Americans winning the war on cancer," said Stepner.

There was also significant difference in lifespans by region, yet fellow researcher and doctoral candidate, Sarah Abraham could not attribute this variation to factors such as access to health care, environmental issues, income inequality, or the job market.

"The patterns are not exactly what you might expect," she said. "We don't find those to be as highly correlated with differences in longevity as we find measures of health behavior, such as smoking rates or obesity rates [to be correlated with lifespan].”

Life expectancies for the bottom income quartile by region in the United States

Life expectancies for the bottom income quartile show distinct regions in the U.S. where life expectancy is the the shortest. Courtesy of the researchers and the Journal of the American Medical Association.​

While geographic data from the study clearly show the regions of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas have the shortest lifespans, that is not to say the poor in those states are the worst off.

"The Deep South is the lowest-income area in America, but when we're looking at life expectancy conditional on having a low income, it's not worse to be poor in the Deep South than it is in other areas of America," said Stepner. "It's just that there are far more poor people living in the South."

The researchers caution that more analysis is needed before a simple cause-and-effect is drawn between wealth and longevity, but note that their study should have some immediate implications for ongoing political discussions, particularly in regards to social security.

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"Things like Social Security aren't going to be as redistributive if the richer people are getting paid for 10 more years than the poorer people," said Abraham.

The researchers state that the dynamic between wealth and lifespan has many interwoven factors and frame their “unprecedented” study as a starting point for a larger conversation on income inequality.

"We don't have all the answers," said Abraham. "But it's really important to make these statistics widely used so people have an idea of what the magnitude of these problems is, where they might focus their attention, and why this matters."

The study’s findings were published in the paper, "The Association between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014," in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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