Life Expectancy and the Complexity of Inequality

Inequality is an odd word. First, it’s a negative, that is, it represents the absence of something; that something is equality. Equality is a simple term meaning that one thing is equal or the same as another. In economic affairs it is usually talked about in terms of equal opportunity, not equality of outcomes.

Economists, politicians, and policy wonks often talk of inequality in relation to fairness of opportunity or of different degrees of economic success. However, the idea is used in more ways than one. Too often, a ‘level playing field’ is assumed when the field is anything but fair because opportunity comes with wealth, social position, and political power. In poverty we find far less opportunity.

On the one hand, the more inequality exists in the economy, the less comfortable life is for more and more people. That is certainly happening more and more today. This is where the old concept of class comes in. If you are ‘lower class,’ some folks consider that to mean that you are an inferior kind of person. But the classic meaning is simply that by being in the lower class, you have less access to resources for living a comfortable life.

Hierarchy, Health and Happiness

‘Upper class,’ on the other hand, generally means that a person has a lot of access to resources. We call people in the upper class ‘rich.’ Rich people, obviously, either own or have easy access to far more resources and ‘wealth’ than do poor people, who are generally members of the lower class. ‘Classy’ is more a matter of style, yet style requires resources to sustain. So, how does ‘inequality’ fit into this more or less obvious framing of economic power?

Well, with wealth comes the power to attain more wealth and with poverty comes extremely limited opportunity to attain wealth. It is not just what you have; it is also how easily you can accumulate more than you have. Research on income and happiness in the U.S. has shown that as of a few years ago (not accounting for inflation since then) happiness increases with increased income, but only up to a certain (or maybe somewhat uncertain) point, which turns out to be about $70,000- (maybe with inflation it would be around $80,000- today). More income than that and happiness does not increase much more.

Of course, it is much more complex than a simple correlation between income and happiness. Many other factors are involved in determining happiness, and some have little to do with income. As the old saying goes, money may not bring happiness, but it can help. In fact, income affects access to healthcare and several other factors that influence good and bad health. In the U.S. especially—the only nation among the high-income nations in the world that does not have a universal healthcare insurance system—the health of low-income people suffers greatly.

Health is affected by income, especially where access to healthcare is limited by income, as in the United States, where only the upper middle class and the wealthy have full access to healthcare. Poor health, naturally, is reflected in life expectancy. Now, the U.S. is considered the richest nation in the world. But look at the chart. The U.S.—the sky blue line below the others—has had a lower life expectancy than all comparable high-income nations ever since about 1986. Not only that, but the U.S. has steadily lost ground compared to other high-income nations. Why? Because access to healthcare in the U.S. depends on how affluent a person is, compared to other high-income nations. And, affluence has increasingly concentrated among a smaller segment of the population

When I consider the growing complexity and also the growing economic inequality in the U.S. today, I am reminded how different things were in the 1950s, the era of the “Great Acceleration” after the end of World War II. When I graduated from high school in 1958, a kid could get an entry level job in the mailroom of an aerospace company in Southern California, rent an apartment, buy a used car (if s/he did not already own one as a junior or senior in high school) and also have some spending money every month.


Now, that didn’t apply to everyone. But working class folks did not become homeless if they had a job. That is because the costs of food and housing were not so out of line with income for so many as they are today. Nothing like that is possible for most young people today. Just getting a job is hard enough; but for most it would not pay for an apartment, no less other living expenses. Why?

Increased Inequality, Shorter Lifespan

Increased inequality is the reason; more precisely, the extreme concentration of wealth at the very top of the income pyramid is even worse than it was during and before the Great Depression of the 1930s. Having access to the resources needed to live in today’s society is distributed extremely unevenly. Corporate taxes and taxes on very high personal incomes have declined to very low levels compared to the 1950s.

Politicians have legislated so many ‘loopholes’ that the super-rich and mega corporations often pay no income tax at all. The government consequently loses so much revenue in relation to the extremely large incomes of the most wealthy high-income persons and corporations that its debt grows steadily and government functions dwindle. When ‘conservative’ politicians whine that we ‘can’t afford’ universal healthcare and other government services that are standard in other high-income nations, they are right for the worst of reasons. They have given their rich donors a means to escape their tax obligations, to the detriment of society as a whole.

Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic had a definite effect on life expectancy for all countries. But, again, look at the chart. The U.S. has experienced a steadily greater decline in life expectancy compared to other high-income nation since the 1980s. At the same time, the rich got super-rich and the poor got ‘sacrifice zones’ or prison, especially in the last few decades. Declining life expectancy followed.

However, the U.S. also suffered greater decline in life expectancy due to the pandemic and other factors. Healthcare outcomes rank lowest among the high-income nations. A range of inferior life conditions added to the poor quality of, and poor access to healthcare in the U.S. compared to those other nations. The bottom line: the power elites have stolen more than ever from the commonwealth of the nation in recent decades than even the ‘Robber Barrons’ before the Great Depression, all the while complaining that government spending causes all economic problems. What they do not face, among other emerging crises, is that no society can continue to serve the billionaires while the rest suffer more and more. That path leads ultimately to chaos and societal collapse.

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