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The cost of income inequality

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This is one of the most shocking graphs I’ve ever seen in regard to the long term social effects of the New Gilded Age. It comes from a big National Academy of Sciences study of the changing relationship between income and life expectancy across different generations of Americans.

These are cohort life expectancies at age 50, based on income quintiles at age 41-50 as measured by SSA income data, for. respectively, people born in 1930 and 1960.

So, for example, middle aged men born in 1930 in the bottom quintile of income could expect to live for about five years less than middle aged men born in 1930 in the top quintile of income. That seems like a significant gap. But hang on, let’s run this same analysis for the dreaded Baby Boom cohort, or at least the tail end of it (the whole baby boom concept is very sloppy for lots of demographic purposes, as treating people born in 1964 as being in the same generation as people born in 1946 makes little sense, but that’s a story for another post).

Middle aged men in the bottom quintile of income born in 1960 have actually seen a decline in life expectancy at age 50, relative to their peers born in 1930! Meanwhile, in the top quintile of income, life expectancy at age 50 has improved by seven years between 1930 and 1960. The result is that difference between life expectancy at age 50 for men in the bottom and the top income quintiles has gone from five years to a genuinely astonishing 13 years.

Note that this same pattern holds for women, and is only slightly ameliorated if you compare the second quintile of income to the top quintile, so we’re not comparing very poor people to very rich people — we’re comparing, roughly speaking, poor, working class, and lower middle class people to upper middle class and rich people.

Another way of putting this is that, for huge swathes of the American population, essentially all of the gains in life expectancy for the population as a whole over the past generation have been driven by big gains among the relatively well off, while the poor, the working class, and even much of the middle class have seen either tiny gains, or actual declines.

A more striking statistical example of the malignant effects of growing income inequality would be hard to find.

Consider these kinds of statistics the next time the sane moderate responsible Republican alternative to Donald Trump starts talking about how we need to raise the Social Security retirement age because “people” are living so much longer these days.

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