Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you longer life. A study published last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed evidence demonstrating the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor Americans. While this conclusion may not surprise those on the front lines working with aging populations, the new data should add impetus to the debate over public policy, wealth redistribution, and universal healthcare.
According to Common Dreams, the GAO, using data about adults who were between 51 and 61 when the study began in 1992, saw a dramatic difference in outcomes that correlated with wealth. “Just 48 percent of those in the bottom 20 percent of the wealth distribution were still alive in 2014,” they write. “By contrast, over 75 percent of those in the wealthiest 20 percent were still alive, indicating that—in the words of the GAO—‘income and wealth each have strong associations with longevity.’”
The GAO took a deeper look at factors contributing to this outcome and underscored the difference between richer and poorer individuals in their ability to support themselves in their retirement years; in short, poor and middle-class Americans have not been able to save sufficiently for retirement, as reported in the Washington Post:
In 2016, for instance, 89 percent of the poorest quintile of older households (defined as those headed by someone 55 or older) had zero retirement savings to speak of. Just 14 percent of the richest quintile of older households were in a similar predicament, with over 50 percent of that group possessing retirement savings of $500,000 or more.
With less cash, little or no home equity, and even unlikely to own their own car, this group depends most on the one stable element in retirement—Social Security income—and is less able to suffer the challenges of finding an affordable home, paying for unexpected medical needs, or just keeping healthy food on the table than their wealthier neighbors.
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For policymakers, this is more than a reflection of how public policy and private philanthropy have managed a safety net for an aging population. It should serve as a warning sign of more trouble to come if changes are not made.
The gap between rich and poor has gotten worse over the period of this study. Adults following behind the study cohort have been swimming upstream as they try to generate the resources they will need. Harold Pollack, a health care expert at the University of Chicago, told the Post that “over time, the top fifth of the income distribution is really becoming a lot wealthier—and so much of the health and wealth gains in America are going toward the top. In these fundamental areas—life expectancy, health—there are these growing disparities that are really a failure of social policy.”
Home ownership, which has been an engine for wealth accumulation, has become less attainable since the Great Recession. According to the GAO report:
The home ownership rate for households in the bottom 20 percent in 2016 (19 percent) was significantly lower than the home ownership rate for households in the bottom 20 percent in 2007 (28 percent), the starting year for the most recent recession. That drop means those lower-income households will have even fewer assets to draw on in retirement, an ominous consideration given the warnings of an impending recession.
The GAO finding should give pause to those wanting to further reduce Social Security, health care, and other income support programs. Even as the economy is growing, the difficulty of those at the bottom of the economic ladder to accumulate the wealth necessary to meet current and future challenges remains. Public programs are critical; as H. Luke Schaefer, director of the Poverty Solutions program at the University of Michigan, explained to the Post, “One of the major takeaways is how incredibly important Social Security is in the retirement security of low- and moderate-income households. Proposals to reduce rather than increase its level of support will put more at risk of living shorter lives.”
The basic costs of living are hard enough for too many Americans to cope with; facing the challenges posed by sudden illness or housing dislocation without help makes financial security and its health benefits beyond the reach of too many. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who requested the GAO report, put it quite graphically: “We must put an end to the obscene income and wealth inequality in our country, and ensure living wages, quality healthcare, and retirement security for our seniors as human rights. If we do not urgently act to solve the economic distress of millions of Americans, a whole generation will be condemned to early death.” The GAO’s data suggest this warning is more than campaign rhetoric.—Martin Levine