After F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me," Hemingway supposedly retorted, "Yes, they have more money." But the rich apparently have something else, too: better health and longer lives.
A new study that looked at age and income in both the United States and the United Kingdom found that the wealthy can expect about nine years more of healthy life — almost a decade, just because they have money.
The leader of the study, Dr. Paola Zaninotto, a professor in epidemiology and healthcare at University College London, describes it in simple but bleak terms in The Guardian:
"We found that socio-economic inequalities in disability-free life expectancy were similar across all ages in England and the US but the biggest socio-economic advantage in both countries and across all age groups was wealth."
The study is based on data from more than 25,000 adults — 10,754 in the U.K. and 14,803 in the U.S. — aged 50 and older.
And the gap keeps on getting wider
This comes on the heels of a study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which reveals that over the last three decades, the top fifth of the population has become a LOT richer, while everyone else has pretty much flatlined in terms of real increase in incomes.
But the study also found that "individuals from households in the top quintile (top 20%) of wealth in 1992 were more likely to be alive than their counterparts in the bottom four quintiles."
The numbers are appalling. Of Americans who were between the ages of 51 and 61 in 1992, 80% of the rich, college-educated Americans were still alive, while only 50% of the poorest 20% were. The other 60% — the three quintiles in the middle — were, well, exactly in the middle, with 65% still alive. What's the difference?
Several experts we spoke with noted that health care costs can pose a particular challenge at older ages. Taken all together, individuals may live a long time and face financial challenges in their later years, including those with less income and wealth. For example, of the individuals in the bottom group of our scenarios illustrating the effects of earnings and education on longevity, an estimated 50 percent were still alive in 2014. Should these individuals not have DC [defined contribution] accounts or have little in them, or should they have little to no DB [defined benefit] pension benefits, they may have to rely primarily on Social Security (which itself faces financing difficulties) or safety net programs.
Some of the data are so shocking, with graphs like this one that show how, in this new gilded age, the top quintile has gained so much. It's hard to understand why older working people in the U.S. aren't lined up with guillotines to go after rich Republicans who want to cut Social Security and other entitlements. Instead, some of them actually vote for them. The poorest 40% of Americans are almost entirely dependent on Social Security, while the top 20% barely notice its existence, and they are the older voters more likely to vote.
The report was commissioned by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who jumped on the results, according to The Washington Post.
"We are in a crisis never before seen in a rich, industrialized democracy. … For three straight years, overall life expectancy in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world has been in decline," the senator, a 2020 presidential candidate, said in a statement. "If we do not urgently act to solve the economic distress of millions of Americans, a whole generation will be condemned to early death."
Not only that, they'll have nowhere to live. The study finds that only 19% of the bottom quintile own their houses, they have no savings and no equity. In an earlier post we quoted a study that found that over half of the population won't be able to afford care and housing:
We project that by 2029, there will be 14.4 million middle-income seniors, 60 percent of whom will have mobility limitations and 20 percent of whom will have high health care and functional needs. While many of these seniors will likely need the level of care provided in seniors housing, we project that 54 percent of seniors will not have sufficient financial resources to pay for it.
Some may discount the GAO study simply because Sanders — who calls himself a progressive and a democratic socialist — asked for it, but this agency is an impartial branch of the government looking at statistics, if such a thing can be said to exist.
Long before Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol," it was known that poverty is bad for your health. But we're not in Victorian England anymore; we're are talking about the 21st century in the United States of America. Sanders is right, this is a crisis.
Editor update: This story has been updated since it was first published in September 2019.