How long will you live? Depends. What’s in your wallet?
I turned 65 recently, and signed up for Medicare. I’m not planning on retiring anytime soon. However, the occasion got me thinking about what life might be like for me and my family when I do stop working. I’m in really good shape compared to others my age: I’m in a highly compensated profession; I’ve got good health insurance and dental coverage; and I’ve got a generous defined benefits and defined contribution retirement plan.
For the majority of older people in this country, their main source of income after retirement is Social Security, accounting for four out of five dollars received by elderly people with low incomes. (See recent AARP report.) Only a third of U.S. elderly receive pension or retirement savings income.
The inequities of the working years continue after retirement. People 65 and older have an average yearly income of $31,742; however, half of this population has an income of less than $19,604. Because of their higher lifetime earnings, men get higher Social Security benefits than women, and whites get higher benefits than minorities. In fact, minorities are less likely to have any income from Social Security, pensions, or retirement savings plans — let alone interest or dividends.
This income inequality, which is rooted in our social class structure, is a major driver of mortality. Dr. Corey Anderson, a sociologist from the University of Arizona, recently published a book, The End Game: How Inequality Shapes Our Final Years, that studies how income determines who even gets to grow old. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences shows that not only are those who had higher educational attainment and higher incomes before retiring are living longer than those with less education and income, but the gap is widening.
According to the NAS report, men born in 1930 who reached age 50 had an additional 26.6 years if they were in the lowest income category; whereas they had 31.7 years if they were in the highest income category — a gap of some 5 years. The report projects that men born in 1960 in the lowest income bracket have shown no improvement in life expectancy, while those in the highest income bracket will experience an increased life expectancy of 7 years — increasing the gap to about 12 years.
The poor, working-class, and rural people of this country — especially those of color — die younger. An entire life course marked by low income, poor education, dilapidated housing, unhealthy environments, and inadequate healthcare dooms these populations to unjustly early deaths.
This injustice must stop. However, it won’t end until the social and economic injustice in which it is rooted is ended, as well.