Not Everyone Is Living Longer

When it is unveiled in the coming weeks, the Social Security Trustees report will no doubt prompt the program's critics to call for change, as it does each year. And one of their suggestions will likely be to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare benefits.

It sounds so reasonable. Isn't everybody living longer? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

The truth is that gains in life expectancy are not shared evenly at all, and it would be a mistake to reduce benefits based on this false assumption. The big winners in longevity are affluent and educated. The less-fortunate among us have gained much less, and in some cases their longevity is actually declining.

Men in the upper half of the income distribution now live roughly six years longer than they did in the 1970s, while men in the lower half are living just 1.3 years longer, the New York Times reported. And recent work by S. Jay Olshansky has found that white women without a high school diploma LOST five years of life between 1990 and 2008. That is a shocking decline, which highlights the danger of raising the eligibility age for essential benefits on assumptions that everyone is living longer.

It may surprise you that your zip code is one of the best predictors of how long you will survive. Life expectancy is seven years longer where I live in the suburbs than it is where I work in the city. But even that gap pales when compared to the disparities in the Chicago area, where there is a 33-year difference in life expectancy inside Cook County alone.

It is not clear what is causing these vast differences. But researchers suspect it may be due to higher levels of stress, obesity and smoking that are more prevalent among society's have-nots, along with lower access to healthy foods or health care.

Most people know there are differences in life expectancy based on gender, race and ethnicity. In 2010 the average white man could expect to live to 82 if he reached age 65. This was almost three years less than the average white woman, but two years longer than the average African-American male. Black women on average live longer than Black or white men, but not as long as white women.

But the public has heard less about differences in longevity linked directly to the underlying factors of wealth and education. These disparities should be made loud and clear in any debate about hiking the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare.

After all, reasonable-sounding suggestions to raise the age for these benefits usually come from white, educated, high-income individuals whose life expectancy, and that of their family members, has increased sharply over time.

They need a reminder: Not everyone is so fortunate.