Are We REALLY Living Longer?

Written by Jackie Tortora, AFL-CIO

Are people really living longer? That depends…how much money do you have?

Media pundits and Washington elites love to point to their own lives and say, “Hey, we’re living longer, why not raise the Social Security retirement age and Medicare eligibility age?”

What they fail to realize is that large gains in life expectancy are closely related to how wealthy a person is. Just look at the case of the two counties in Florida that Washington Post reporter Michael A. Fletcher examined in Research Ties Economic Inequality to Gap in Life Expectancy.

St. Johns County senior citizens are living longer. In a community that has an abundant amount of golf courses, hiking and biking trails, the wealthier seniors are enjoying life on the coast well into their 80s. Fletcher writes:

….Women here can expect to live to be nearly 83, four years longer than they did just two decades earlier, according to research at the University of Washington. Male life expectancy is more than 78 years, six years longer than two decades ago.

But in neighboring Putnam County, life is neither as idyllic nor as long.

Incomes and housing values are about half what they are in St. Johns. And life expectancy in Putnam has barely budged since 1989, rising less than a year for women to just over 78. Meanwhile, it has crept up by a year and a half for men, who can expect to live to be just over 71, seven years less than the men living a few miles away in St. Johns.

The difference between the two adjacent counties illustrates the rampant inequality in the United States. Raising the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare would disproportionately harm lower income seniors, who tend to die younger and would receive less benefits.

“People who are shorter-lived tend to make less, which means that if you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of Global Policy Solutions, a public policy consultancy. “Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.”

Another study published last week in the journal Health Affairs, Fletcher writes, said that “in almost half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before. The counties where women’s life expectancy is declining typically are in the rural South and West, the report said.”

Access to health care is another factor in life expectancy. In St. Johns, there are more than double the amount of primary care physicians than there are in Putnam.

What the article doesn’t directly address is how much lower- and middle-income workers rely on Social Security benefits. According to the Social Security Administration, among older Social Security beneficiaries, 53% of married couples and 74% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 23% of married couples and about 46% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

Raising the retirement age would be a severe benefit cut. Raising the Medicare eligibility age would raise the cost of Medicare because it takes younger, healthier seniors out of the insurance pool. We should talk about improving and expanding Social Security and Medicare, not cutting them.

This post was originally published by the AFL-CIO.


Photo: Tobyotter/flickr


Anne Marie M.

And,how do you know I have no proof. I have worked for 40 years in the field of housing, social services, for the elderly, the homeless, and families. I know a lot more about this than you do. But, like all prejudiced people you choose to want to cut funds to anyone who isn't rich. Obesity is a symptom of poverty. I guess you are against school lunches too. A kid cannot really conscentrate when he/she is hungry. So you would not want a child to learn either? Are you for home schooling? I bet you are.

Don H.
Don H.3 years ago

Robert P said,

"When I ran for Congress in 1998 and 2000 I had the written proof that it was 79 percent as of 1996."

You had no proof. Your number is absurd.

Anne Marie M.

Yes, Robert do dig. Because you are wrong. If anything, its the so called "charities" that perhaps you are mixing up with government.

When you ran for Congress twice? Did you by any chance win? No I am sure you didn't. Thanks goodness! Perhaps your facts were wrong when you campaigned.
I am so happy there are more people in this world who are compassionate...rather than those like you.

Robert P.
Robert P.3 years ago

I will have to dig to find the proof on the percentage of money for administration and overhead. When I ran for Congress in 1998 and 2000 I had the written proof that it was 79 percent as of 1996. I have been told by somebody who would know that it is worse now.

Don H.
Don H.3 years ago

Robert P, you claim, "Over 80 percent of all money allocated to the poor by the federal government goes to administration and overhead."

How about you provide us with some evidence of this outrageous claim. We know what you claim of government programs is true of many private "non-profit" charities.

Robert P.
Robert P.3 years ago

I find it interesting that objections to paying for problems that are self inflicted is interpreted by some as insensitive. At the church I attend we collect money for the poor in the congregation and are making efforts to expand that help to others. We are small, so it is not unlimited. Over 80 percent of all money allocated to the poor by the federal government goes to administration and overhead. Government is not the right vehicle for helping the poor (except by getting out of the way). Private charities are WAY more efficient and have some accountability so those in need have to make efforts to change IF their poverty, poor health, or other problem(s) is self inflicted. Those who have problems through no fault of their own are also helped, but with no requirements other than showing up regularly (and being given a ride if needed).

Mary B.
Mary B.3 years ago

The kind of poverty that arises from situations that poor people are born into can hardly be called a 'choice', especially when the odds are stacked against them and what little help is offered is crumbs compared to what the well off take for granted. Those that do try to pull themselves up by 'playing by the rules, getting a good education, and working hard' way too often lose it all when the better job from a good education ends and they can't pay for all the things [car, house, ect] that they get from haveing a good credit score crumbles.
The 'choice' kind of poverty comes from looking at the rigged system, realizing it's a set up designed to get you to spend your life working for others who will profit from your imput, and deciding not to participate, so you stay with the low wage job and bring your heart into it, so that your life at least feels worthwhile, even tho you will always be poor because business get away with paying less than living wages. It is time for it ALL to change. And we've already heard all the arguments against it, so don't bother repeating them. Retirees have much to offer and need to be supported. We are not throw-aways. We are the been there/done that crowd and as long as we have enough wits left to see thru the parisitic system and demand the money and respect the poor deserve for doing the pidly jobs we have much to add with out taking away jobs from anybody.We know where the red flags and pot holes are.

Anne Marie M.

To Robert and Harley: I beg to disagree with both of you. Most people eat what they can afford. Our country is suffering from hunger - a family cannot live healthy on food stamps. And, a family without food stamps but perhaps someone is working for minimum wage, cannot buy healthy food. Before you put someone down because they are obese,check your facts. There are also people with severe thyroid issues, who are obese. . There are people who have Lupus and other illnesses who have to take medication , like steroids , which will put on a lot of pounds, and there are many other illnesses (both physical and mental) who take medication that can causes obesity. So stop putting people down you know nothing about. Obviously,neither one of you have any problems with money, so you can buy healthy foods, but, do you. Both of you appear to be part of the 2% of this country,who could care less about anyone but yourselves. Shame on you.both

Harley Williams
Harley W.3 years ago

Good questions Robert. Life expectancy often has more to do with what we eat that what we earn.

Robert P.
Robert P.3 years ago

A lot of relevant information is missing from the story. Do the poorer people smoke more on average? Do they eat more fast food (and spend more in the process). Do they exercise more or less? Are they more overweight, less overweight? Etc., etc. Without that information, this story is irrelevant and much ado about nothing. People make choices and suffer the consequences of their actions. How is that unfair (and why should others have to pay for the willful bad choices - if that is the case - of people with bad judgment)?