A man walks by the Camillus Health Concern in Miami, a clinic that provides medical care to the homeless and low-income, in 2009. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

If poor Americans are living shorter lives, they’re also accruing less in Social Security benefits.

The gap in life spans between the rich and the poor has been widening for a while, but the speed with which it has worsened has severe consequences for economic inequality in the U.S., a new analysis by the Brookings Institution finds.

Researchers analyzed Social Security data and other government records for thousands of men and women born between the years 1910 and 1950. They found that, for a man born in 1920, the average life expectancy at age 50 if he was in the top 10 percent of the income spectrum was 79 years. In other words, if this man made it to 50, he could expect to stick around for another 29 years. But the life expectancy at 50 of a man in the lowest 10 percent of income was just 74 years—five years less than the wealthier peer from his age cohort.

This rich-poor gap in life expectancy at 50 sharply increased to 12 years if the men were born in 1940 (below, right). For women, this gap widened from four to 10 years between 1920 and 1940 (below, left). Simply put, over time, the rich saw much bigger jumps forward in their life expectancy, while the poor saw little to no improvements:

Brookings

The Brookings researchers don’t yet fully understand the reasons behind this disturbing trend. Sabrina Tavernise suggests in The New York Times that afflictions that disproportionately affect low-income Americans, such as smoking and drug addiction, may play roles, though that doesn’t explain why better and more accessible health care over time hasn’t closed the life expectancy gap. Here’s Tavernise quoting a public health expert:

At the heart of the disparity, said Elizabeth H. Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale, are economic and social inequities, “and those are things that high-tech medicine cannot fix.”

The life-expectancy gap also feeds the very economic inequities it stems from, by weakening the ability of the Social Security program to redistribute wealth. Low-income Americans, with limited lifetime earnings and savings, benefit greatly from Social Security once they’ve aged out of the labor force. But if they’re dying at younger ages, they won’t accrue as much in benefits over time relative to their longer-living, wealthier counterparts.

The disparity in longevity compounds the effect of another harmful trend: low-income Americans tend to claim benefits before they reach full retirement age, meaning their monthly payouts are smaller to begin with compared to more well-off Americans. Here’s how the researchers sum it up:  

The growing gap in life expectancy between low- and high-income workers means that high-wage workers will collect pensions for progressively longer periods, even as low-wage workers see little improvement in life expectancy. That gap, when taken together with the rise in average retirement ages since the early 1990s, means the gap between lifetime benefits received by poor and less educated workers and the benefits received by high-income and well educated workers is widening in favor of the higher income workers.

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