Prosper and Live Longer

New study shows huge mortality gap between rich and poor.

Poverty in the U.S. is often associated with deprivation: fewer jobs, worse housing, and less education. A major new study coauthored by two MIT researchers shows another stark reality: poor people live shorter lives, too.

More precisely, the richest 1 percent of men live 14.6 years longer on average than the poorest 1 percent of men, while among women in those wealth percentiles, the difference is 10.1 years on average.

“The fact that [the poorest Americans] can on average expect to have 10 or 15 fewer years of life really demonstrates the level of inequality we’ve had in the United States,” says Michael Stepner, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Economics.

Stepner and Sarah Abraham ’12, another MIT PhD candidate in economics, are second and third authors (among eight) of a paper about the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The doctoral students spent three years on the project, which contains unprecedented geographic detail.

The longevity gap is also growing rapidly: since 2001, life expectancy has increased by 2.34 years for men and 2.91 years for women who are among the top 5 percent of income earners in America, but by just 0.32 and 0.04 years for men and women in the bottom 5 percent of the income tables. For perspective, federal health officials estimate that curing all forms of cancer would add three years to the average life span.

“That change over the last 15 years is the equivalent of the richest Americans winning the war on cancer,” Stepner observes.

The researchers combined 1.4 billion tax filings with mortality data from 2001 to 2014 and found that the average life span varies regionally by as much as 4.5 years. Eight of the 10 states with the lowest life expectancies for people in the bottom income quartile form a contiguous belt, from Michigan through Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Abraham notes that this regional variation does not strongly correlate with environmental problems, access to health care, income inequality, or the job market. It is also unclear whether, on aggregate, wealth leads to better health or good health is a prerequisite for accumulating wealth. But the researchers found that differences in life span exist along the entire wealth continuum.

“As you go up in the income distribution, life expectancy continues to increase at every point,” Stepner says.

The city with the longest average life span for the poor is New York City, while Gary, Indiana (77.4 years on average), is at the bottom of that list. Among the top income earners, people live longest in Salt Lake City (87.8 years on average); the rich have the shortest lives in Las Vegas (84.1 years on average).