To most, it comes as no surprise that for people in poverty life can be hard. But new research indicates it may also be short. A study from the Brookings Institution found that the gap between the life spans of those in the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent of earners has widened in the United States over the last several decades. This longevity gap has grown from a six-year difference, for men born in 1920, to 14 years, for men born in 1950. Among women, the gap increased from 4.7 to 13 years. Possible causes for this worrying trend include a significant decrease in smoking among the wealthier group and increased abuse of prescription drugs among the less wealthy demographic.
The longevity gap also can exacerbate inequalities already present in society. For example, those who live longer reap the greatest benefits from programs like Social Security and Medicare, as they receive these benefits for longer amounts of time. Greater funding for programs that can help alleviate stress and offer care for those facing addiction and increased education to discourage smoking could improve life expectancy in low-income communities. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act may help to lessen this gap, but it is too soon to tell. And experts argue that access to medical care is not at the root of this problem. There is no easy answer to this growing disparity. Closing the longevity gap requires that our society address the many systemic injustices and everyday challenges, in all their complexity, faced by those in need.