January/ February 2013 Is Inequality Shortening Your Life Span?

White, black, or brown, we’d all live longer in a more equal, less status-driven society.

By Phillip Longman

Within the United States generally, disparities in health among different segments of the population have increased in lockstep with growing disparities in income and education. By now it’s to the point that poorly educated white Americans, for the first time ever, are experiencing an absolute decline in their average life span. White males with fewer than twelve years of education now have a life expectancy of just 67.5 years—just six months longer than the standard Social Security retirement age set under current law for today’s middle-aged and younger Americans. The gap in life expectancy between white females who go to college and those who don’t widened from 1.9 years in 1990 to 10.4 years in 2008.

Meanwhile, for all but those at the very top of the ladder, and perhaps even for them, life is shorter than it likely would be if we lived in a more equal, less socially competitive and status-driven society—including one that was less obsessed with status distinctions based on race, education, and profession or that paid less notice than Americans have since the 1980s to who has the biggest McMansion, the most designer clothes, or the latest, snazziest smartphone. Inequality may not be an equal-opportunity killer, but few escape its mortal consequences.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Phillip Longman is a senior editor at the Washington Monthly and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches health care policy. He is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where Atul Gawande is a board member.


  • Larry Roth on January 21, 2013 6:25 PM:

    Thought provoking essay - and pretty much the conclusion reached by Wilkinson and Pickett in their book "The Spirit Level" looking at the same studies and the same data. I'm rather surprised there was no mention of them and their work.