Does Wealth = Life?

There is an interesting article on the  NY Times site by Annie Lowrey on the potential impact that economic inequality might be having on U.S. lifespans. The article, “Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap,” analyzes two counties in particular: Fairfax County, Va., and the much poorer McDowell County, W.Va.


The wealth and lifespan data from these locations seem to indicate at least a correlation between being richer and living longer. “Residents of Fairfax County,” notes Lowrey, “are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.” This pattern seems to be repeating itself nationally.

As Lowrey also notes:

For the upper half of the income spectrum, men who reach the age of 65 are living about six years longer than they did in the late 1970s. Men in the lower half are living just 1.3 years longer….

But is widening income inequality behind the divergence in longevity over the last three decades? Would an economy with a narrower gap between the haves and the have-nots lead to stronger life-expectancy gains, from the richest to the poorest? Might the expansion ofinsurance through the Affordable Care Act help close the gap? And might the policies that Congress is contemplating to ameliorate poverty — like raising the minimum wage — have a further effect on life spans, too?

if the pattern this piece suggests turns out to be true, then there are some interesting social economics questions that emerge? Of course, it’s no surprise that richer people, who can afford better nutrition and healthcare, should live longer; but the belief was that the health benefits of wealth were often countered by the wealthy’s easier access to tobacco and alcohol and their (typically) more sedentary lines of work, which in the end narrowed the life expectancy gap. What the new data seems to suggest is that, perhaps because of technology, the rich no longer suffer from so many “rich person’s diseases” and so the life gap has begun to increase again.

As the piece also notes:

In both counties, food availability matters. There are only two full-size grocery stores in McDowell; minimarts and fast-food restaurants are major sources of nutrition. “We don’t have gyms or fitness centers,” said Pamela McPeak, who grew up in McDowell getting creek water to flush her family’s toilet. “It’s cheaper to buy Cheetos rather than apples.” She now runs a nonprofit program that provides tutoring and helps high school students get into college.

Education is also correlated with longevity, as it is with income and employment. Educated individuals are much more likely to work, and much more likely to have higher incomes. In McDowell, about one in 18 adults has a college degree; in Fairfax, the share is 60 percent.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, researchers say that a life in poverty is a life of stress that accumulates in a person’s very cells. Being poor is hard in a way that can mean worse sleep, more cortisol in the blood, a greater risk of hypertension and, ultimately, a shorter life.

As southern West Virginia has foundered, northern Virginia has flourished. But do the two counties’ diverging life expectancies relate to their diverging economic fortunes? And might that be true across the country?

The data are not sufficient today to make any definite conclusion about cause or effect. But even with the many caveats researchers note, some analysts seem to think that wealth is not just the determining factor in how easy life is to lead for a given individual but also how much of life itself a given person receives. Moreover, if life itself is a social good with an almost incalculable level of utility, then is there any need to address this growing gap through policy? It’s not hard to imagine a whole raft of left-veryss-right debates emerging from this phenomenon.

For now, Lowrey’s piece is an interesting look at this emerging trend that economists on both sides of the political isle are no doubt watching closely.

Read more:

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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