Life expectancy differentials

April 17, 2008

Today, CBO released a new issue brief on increasing disparities in life expectancy. Here I provide a brief summary of the brief (yes, I recognize the irony in that phrasing):

  • Life expectancy has been steadily increasing in the United States for the past several decades. Recent gains in life expectancy have not, however, been shared equally across socioeconomic groups. Although the gaps between women and men and between whites and African Americans have narrowed somewhat, differences by educational attainment and income have been growing. In other words, socioeconomic status has become an increasingly important determinant of life expectancy.
    • In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years longer for the highest economic group than for the lowest economic group. By 2000, this gap had increased to 4.5 years. The change in the gap of 1.7 years is more than half of the increase in average life expectancy at birth between 1980 and 2000.
    • In 1980, the difference in life expectancy at age 65 between the highest and lowest economic groups was 0.3 years; by 2000, the difference had increased to 1.6 years. This increase in the gap is more than 80 percent of the increase in average life expectancy at age 65 over this period.
  • The implications of a continued widening of the gap in life expectancy by socioeconomic status are clear for Social Security but less so for Medicare.
    • For Social Security, a widening gap would worsen the long-term shortfall in financing and reduce the programs progressivitythe extent to which it redistributes resources from high-income to low-income people.
    • For Medicare, it is not clear whether a widening gap would exacerbate the cost increases that will result from increasing longevity. How the share of Medicare spending on low-income individuals would change depends on the relative proportional changes in life expectancy.

The brief was written by Joyce Manchester and Julie Topoleski from our outstanding long-term modeling group.