A new study by Barry Bosworth, Gary Burtless, and Kan Zhang (pdf, as discussed here) reveals that (looking at mid-career earnings) the life expectancy gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution is growing.
For example (from the bottom half of the chart above), for 50-year old women in the top one-tenth of the income distribution, women born in 1940 could expect to live almost 6.4 years longer than women in the same position in the income distribution who were born in 1920. For 50-year old women in the bottom one-tenth of the income distribution, they found no improvement at all in life expectancy.
Longevity trends among low-income men were not much better: Men at the bottom saw only a small improvement in their life expectancy (of 1.7 years) compared to a much large increase for men at the top (8.7 years). So, the life-expectancy gap between low-income and high-income men increased just as fast as it did between low- and high-income women.
This growing gap in life expectancy has lots of different implications, such as the long-presumed progressivity of Social Security payouts (since low-wage contributors receive monthly checks that are a higher percentage of the monthly wages they earn during their careers than high-income participants). But, according to this and similar studies, we’re learning that the growing mortality differences between rich and poor are offsetting the redistributive tilt in Social Security’s benefit formula.
Perhaps even more important, the mortality gap is challenging our long-held expectation that successive generations live longer than the generations that preceded them. For the past three decades, however, improvements in average life spans at the bottom of the income distribution have been negligible while those at the top continue to grow.
What this finding suggests is that it’s not just income and wealth but life itself that has grown starkly more unequal in the United States.