Rising Inequality in Life Expectancy by Socioeconomic Status

WP#2017-2

Abstract

Inequality in life expectancy is growing in the United States, but evidence is mixed regarding how much it has grown.  Some studies have found that life expectancy has decreased for those with the lowest socioeconomic status (SES). Other studies have found that while inequality is rising, there have been life expectancy gains across the board.  A primary difference in these studies is how SES is measured.  Some studies use an absolute measure, such as years of school completed, while others use relative measures, such as a person’s ranking of years of school completed compared to others born at the same time.  This study uses regression analysis to assign people a relative education ranking and, in doing so, attempts to isolate the changing relationship between SES and mortality from the fact that certain education-based groups, especially high school dropouts, actually have a lower SES level today than in the past.  The study finds that when SES is defined in this way – relatively – inequality in mortality by SES is increasing but life expectancies have also increased across SES groups.  The study also finds that white women in the bottom of the education distribution have experienced the least improvement of any group.  This research suggests that efforts to improve the finances of Social Security through higher retirement ages will have to reckon with the distributional effects of increasing inequality in mortality, but not with increases in mortality for large segments of the population.