As income gap grows, so does life expectancy gap


Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It will explore how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report

By Derek Schwabe

We know that the income gap between top earners and everyone else has grown immensely in recent years. From 1979 to 2007, the pay of the top 1 percent of earners grew 156 percent, compared to just 17 percent for the bottom 90 percent. A study released last week by the Brookings Institution shows that the rising costs of inequality are more than financial. Being poor shaves years off a person’s life. Growing inequality of income is causing growing inequality in life expectancy.  

According to the study, in 1970, a 50-year-old man in the top tenth of wage earners lived an average of 1.7 years longer than a 50-year-old man in the bottom tenth. By 2001, the difference in life expectancy between the two had grown to 12 years. Results were similar for women, with the life-expectancy gap growing from 4.0 years to 10.1 years. See the chart above.

Since the 1970s, U.S. national income has grown immensely, but the earnings of most workers have not kept pace. The result is a swelling group for which work—even full-time work—is not enough to escape poverty. More than one in four U.S. workers now earns poverty level wages. The taxing conditions of poverty, hunger, and poor nutrition clearly hurt long-term health, but not just because of lost earnings. Workers in low-wage jobs usually have no employer-sponsored health insurance, no paid sick leave, and no paid vacation days. They are part of a group often called “the working poor.”

A life course perspective on health and hunger illustrates how the effects of hunger on health accrue during a lifetime. A food insecure woman gives birth to a premature, underweight baby. The undernourished infant is more susceptible to infections, requires more medical care, is more likely to be hospitalized, and faces delays in growth and development that may haunt her for the rest of her life.

Growing up poor, she has markedly different experiences than her peers in higher-income households: no high-quality preschool or center-based child care, parents who are overwhelmed with trying to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads, siblings competing for whatever food there is in the home.

In school, she struggles to catch up. She is chronically hungry and relies on the free school meal programs for low-income children for most of her nutrients. Growing up impoverished in a food insecure household exposes her to toxic levels of stress that contributes to early onset of chronic diseases. Toxic stress also makes her more vulnerable to depression and thoughts of suicide, substance abuse, and dropping out of school and, as a result, severely limited employment opportunities in adulthood.

The food insecurity she experienced early in life makes her more prone to overweight and obesity. She is more at risk of becoming disabled at an early age in adulthood, due to the likelihood that her job requires more physical labor than the work of someone with more education. By the time she reaches her senior years, she may well have multiple chronic conditions that are expensive to treat. With limited healthcare options as a younger person, she rarely invested in routine checkups to help diagnose and treat these problems earlier on.

Life expectancy is a very basic measure of a person’s health and well-being. It’s pretty clear that income inequality is a serious problem when some people die a decade or more earlier than others – for reasons such as food insecurity, hunger, and poverty.

Healthcare policy changes, most notably the Affordable Care Act, have begun to move the U.S. healthcare system to focus more on prevention and address the root causes of chronic diseases, but undoing the damage caused by current and past problems will take decisive policy change in a number of areas. The recommendations of the 2016 Hunger Report offer a solid starting place.

Derek Schwabe is a research associate in Bread for the World Institute. The italicized paragraphs above originally appeared on page 5 of the 2016 Hunger Report: The Nourishing Effect.

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