The New Year’s holiday is essentially a celebration of life and its continuation. Life is a miracle that is well worth celebrating. But it is also a good time to recognize how unequally the continuation of life (i.e. life expectancy) is distributed within our own wealthy and technically advanced society.
It is well known that social class impacts infant mortality, health and life expectancy. Life expectancy in the United States increased by about 25 years over the past century, but this increase did not eradicate major race and class differences in mortality. For example, differences in life expectancy between black and white men remained constant over the entire 20th century. Research also suggests that the impact of education (an important constituent of social class) on life expectancy is even greater than that of race.
The definitive study of the relationship between income and life expectancy in the United States was conducted by a team of economists from Stanford, Harvard and MIT and published in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Chetty, Stepner, Abraham, et al.). This important study covers the years between 1999 and 2014, and is based upon 1.4 billion tax records combined with appropriate mortality data. It has produced some highly disturbing results.
First, the study showed that life expectancy increases continuously with income. Consider differences in life expectancy at age 40 between Americans in the top 1 percent of the income distribution and Americans in the bottom 1 percent. For males, this difference is 15 years in favor of the former; for females, it is 10 years (also in favor of the higher income group). Being poor costs more than a decade of life!
Second, the Stanford-Harvard-MIT study revealed that income related gaps in life expectancy actually increased between 2001 and 2014 (the last year data was analyzed). Life expectancy for people in the top income quartile increased by three years over this period, while life expectancy for persons in the lowest income quartile did not increase at all.
Third, the study displayed considerable regional differences in the life expectancies of people within the lowest income quartile. Adjusting for race and ethnicity, poor people tend to live longer in California, New York and Vermont than they do in Indiana, Nevada and Oklahoma. These regional differences are related to differences in smoking, exercise and obesity. Donald Trump should take notice that places with more immigrants usually have higher life expectancies.
The United States is not the only country in which social class is strongly related to life expectancy. The class-longevity connection exists even in a socially progressive country like Sweden. A comprehensive study examined links between social class and cause of death in Sweden (Erikson and Torssander, 2008). Working class people in Sweden were more at risk from every major cause of death than people in managerial and professional occupations. There were no exceptions to this class-mortality gradient. Class differences in severe mental disorders; endocrine, nutritional, and metabolic diseases; and malfunctions of the respiratory system were particularly severe.
Profound class inequality exists in every capitalist society. This is not merely an issue of neighborhood and lifestyle; class inequality is literally a matter of life and death.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.