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”People At The Far Ends Of The Economic Ladder”: Why Are Poor Americans Dying So Much Earlier Than Rich Americans?

For a poor woman born in the Roaring Twenties, getting to age 50 was something of an accomplishment. She had to contend with diphtheria and tuberculosis, hookworm and polio, not to mention childbirth, which killed about 800 women for every 100,000 births at the beginning of the decade. Widespread use of penicillin to treat infections was still 20 years away; Medicaid, four decades. If she did make it to 50, on average she would live to be 80 years old. That sounds pretty good, until you consider that the richest women born at the same time lived about four years longer.

Americans have become much healthier since then, generally speaking, thanks to scientific advances, higher living standards, better education, and social programs. Life expectancy hit a record high in 2012. But as with economic prosperity, gains in physical health haven’t been spread equally. Instead, they’ve been increasingly skewed towards the wealthy—and a new analysis from the Brookings Institution indicates gaps in lifespan between the rich and the poor are getting worse, not better.

Using data from the Social Security Administration and other government records, the report compares the lifespan of people born in 1920 and in 1940 who were in either the top or bottom ten percent of wage earners. It turns out that rich men born in 1940 can expect to live 12 years longer than the poorest, compared to a six-year gap between rich and poor men born in 1920. The disparity in life expectancy between women at the top and bottom more than doubled, growing from four to ten years. In fact, women at the bottom saw no increase at all in their life expectancy. The difference continued to grow between rich and poor people born in 1950.

The Brookings analysis “adds to a growing body of evidence that there is a widening gap in health between the haves and have-nots in the country,” said Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. It’s been clear for some time that how long Americans live depends on how much money they have, even their zip codes. What the Brookings study adds is evidence of the problem getting steadily worse.

As for how socioeconomic inequalities translate into inequities in life span, “It’s rather mysterious,” said Lisa Berkman, the director of the Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard University. One answer is that low-income people tend to be sicker in the first place, because the neighborhoods they can afford to live in are more polluted; because they can’t afford to adopt and maintain healthy behaviors; because they can’t afford health insurance premiums, copayments, and prescription drugs.

Woolf accounts much of the disparity in death rates to what he calls “stress-related conditions.” People who aren’t secure economically are likely to experience high levels of stress, which studies have linked to shorter lifespans and a heightened risk of death from strokes, heart attacks, and other illnesses. “We’re seeing a dramatic increase in deaths from opioids, whether we’re talking about prescription painkiller or heroin, but also from suicides, liver disease, and other conditions that I personally feel come from different ways that people are coping, in an unhealthy way, with the stresses that they’re facing in their daily lives,” Woolf said, particularly since the recession. Smoking, the leading cause of preventable death, takes a particularly costly toll on low-income people.

Berkman traces at least some of the stress load on lower-income Americans to changes in the workplace. The 1920s cohort analyzed by the Brookings researchers had their greatest earnings in the 40s and 50s, a time of economic growth and greater equality across the income spectrum. While low-income people born in the 1940s entered a labor market that was less demanding physically, they may also have experienced greater insecurity as wages stagnated, and difficulty balancing work and family life as more women entered the workforce. Unlike many other peer countries with more robust family support, the United States didn’t do much to accommodate the increased challenges facing working parents, Berkman noted. “The second wave of occupational risk are sets of working conditions that are hugely stressful,” she said. “They aren’t so physically stressful, but they’re socially stressful. They’re insecure, they’re inflexible, or they have no ability to balance work and family issues. We need to rethink what occupational health and safety is.”

The point of the Brookings study was to examine how the redistributive impact of Social Security benefits were impacted by lifespan gaps. The report’s authors concluded the disparity

means that high-wage workers will collect pensions for progressively longer periods, even as low-wage workers see little improvement in life expectancy. That gap, when taken together with the rise in average retirement ages since the early 1990s, means the gap between lifetime benefits received by poor and less educated workers and the benefits received by high-income and well educated workers is widening in favor of the higher income workers.

In other words, one of the programs that’s specifically intended to help poor Americans through retirement isn’t really working to their benefit anymore. To Berkman, that suggests the need for reform tailored to different groups—people who’ve worked physically demanding jobs, for instance, need a different sort of retirement security than wealthier people who are in good health able to work longer.

“It’s sort of amazing that people haven’t stood up and said, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing?” Berkman said. “What are we doing to not a small part of our country, but the bottom third, maybe even the bottom half?”

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, February 18, 2016

February 22, 2016 Posted by | Life expectancy, Lifespan Gap, Poor and Low Income, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Insecure American”: Members Of Our Political Elite Seem To Have No Sense Of How The Other Half Lives

America remains, despite the damage inflicted by the Great Recession and its aftermath, a very rich country. But many Americans are economically insecure, with little protection from life’s risks. They frequently experience financial hardship; many don’t expect to be able to retire, and if they do retire have little to live on besides Social Security.

Many readers will, I hope, find nothing surprising in what I just said. But all too many affluent Americans — and, in particular, members of our political elite — seem to have no sense of how the other half lives. Which is why a new study on the financial well-being of U.S. households, conducted by the Federal Reserve, should be required reading inside the Beltway.

Before I get to that study, a few words about the callous obliviousness so prevalent in our political life.

I am not, or not only, talking about right-wing contempt for the poor, although the dominance of compassionless conservatism is a sight to behold. According to the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of conservatives believe that the poor “have it easy” thanks to government benefits; only 1 in 7 believe that the poor “have hard lives.” And this attitude translates into policy. What we learn from the refusal of Republican-controlled states to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the bill, is that punishing the poor has become a goal in itself, one worth pursuing even if it hurts rather than helps state budgets.

But leave self-declared conservatives and their contempt for the poor on one side. What’s really striking is the disconnect between centrist conventional wisdom and the reality of life — and death — for much of the nation.

Take, as a prime example, positioning on Social Security. For decades, a declared willingness to cut Social Security benefits, especially by raising the retirement age, has been almost a required position — a badge of seriousness — for politicians and pundits who want to sound wise and responsible. After all, people are living longer, so shouldn’t they work longer, too? And isn’t Social Security an old-fashioned system, out of touch with modern economic realities?

Meanwhile, the reality is that living longer in our ever-more-unequal society is very much a class thing: life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot among the affluent, but hardly at all in the bottom half of the wage distribution, that is, among those who need Social Security most. And while the retirement system F.D.R. introduced may look old-fashioned to affluent professionals, it is quite literally a lifeline for many of our fellow citizens. A majority of Americans over 65 get more than half their income from Social Security, and more than a quarter are almost completely reliant on those monthly checks.

These realities may finally be penetrating political debate, to some extent. We seem to be hearing less these days about cutting Social Security, and we’re even seeing some attention paid to proposals for benefit increases given the erosion of private pensions. But my sense is that Washington still has no clue about the realities of life for those not yet elderly. Which is where that Federal Reserve study comes in.

This is the study’s second year, and the current edition actually portrays a nation in recovery: in 2014, unlike 2013, a substantial plurality of respondents said that they were better off than they had been five years ago. Yet it’s startling how little room for error there is in many American lives.

We learn, for example, that 3 in 10 nonelderly Americans said they had no retirement savings or pension, and that the same fraction reported going without some kind of medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it. Almost a quarter reported that they or a family member had experienced financial hardship in the past year.

And something that even startled me: 47 percent said that they would not have the resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400 — $400! They would have to sell something or borrow to meet that need, if they could meet it at all.

Of course, it could be much worse. Social Security is there, and we should be very glad that it is. Meanwhile, unemployment insurance and food stamps did a lot to cushion unlucky families from the worst during the Great Recession. And Obamacare, imperfect as it is, has immensely reduced insecurity, especially in states whose governments haven’t tried to sabotage the program.

But while things could be worse, they could also be better. There is no such thing as perfect security, but American families could easily have much more security than they have. All it would take is for politicians and pundits to stop talking blithely about the need to cut “entitlements” and start looking at the way their less-fortunate fellow citizens actually live.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 29, 2015

May 31, 2015 Posted by | Economy, Great Recession, Poor and Low Income, Social Security | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Worsening Inequality”: 900 Rich People Won’t Pay Into Social Security For The Rest Of The Year

While almost all working Americans will pay into Social Security through their paychecks throughout the year, the 900 wealthiest people in the country won’t. That’s because the highest-earning 0.0001 percent of the U.S. — many of them corporate CEOs — made $117,000 in the first two days of the year, which is the maximum annual income that is subject to Social Security taxes under federal law.

It’s tough to say for certain who will be a part of this group in 2014, since the most recent available data on Americans’ earnings is from 2012. In that year, 894 individuals nationwide made enough to qualify for membership in this club, according to the Los Angeles Times. Economist Teresa Ghilarducci came up with the calculation, and points out that Forbes data on top earners enables analysts and the public to see some of the members of this group. There were nearly 70 corporate CEOs who made enough to qualify in 2012, including the top officers at companies like Philip Morris, NewsCorp, Starbucks, ComCast, and Pfizer.

They get to live the year free from Social Security taxes because the law says that only the first $117,000 earned in a year can be taxed to fund the retirement program that kept more than 15 million people out of poverty in 2011. Democrats have pushed to raise the cap in recent years from $106,800 in 2009 to the current level. Eliminating the cap entirely could make the program solvent for the next 75 years without cutting a dime from anyone’s benefits — and doing so wouldn’t touch the earnings of 94.2 percent of all American workers.

Despite that option, most of the debates around Social Security in recent years have focused on cutting the program rather than increasing its revenue stream. Yet Americans are facing a retirement crisis. Companies’ shifts from pensions to investment plans for retirees has undermined the financial security of working people while enriching the financial services industry and worsening inequality. For non-white workers who are far less likely to have access to even those paltry 401(k) plans, the picture is even bleaker. Overall more than half of all Americans are projected to see a steep drop in their standard of living upon retirement. There is a $6.6 trillion gap between what working Americans have saved and what they ought to have saved to retire well.

In the face of all of this, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and others have proposed increasing Social Security benefits rather than cutting them.

 

By: Alan Pyke, Think Progress, January 3, 2014

January 6, 2014 Posted by | Corporations, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Expanding Social Security”: The Fiscal Scolds Driving The Cut-Social-Security Orthodoxy Have Deservedly Lost Credibility

For many years there has been one overwhelming rule for people who wanted to be considered serious inside the Beltway. It was this: You must declare your willingness to cut Social Security in the name of “entitlement reform.” It wasn’t really about the numbers, which never supported the notion that Social Security faced an acute crisis. It was instead a sort of declaration of identity, a way to show that you were an establishment guy, willing to impose pain (on other people, as usual) in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But a funny thing has happened in the past year or so. Suddenly, we’re hearing open discussion of the idea that Social Security should be expanded, not cut. Talk of Social Security expansion has even reached the Senate, with Tom Harkin introducing legislation that would increase benefits. A few days ago Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a stirring floor speech making the case for expanded benefits.

Where is this coming from? One answer is that the fiscal scolds driving the cut-Social-Security orthodoxy have, deservedly, lost a lot of credibility over the past few years. (Giving the ludicrous Paul Ryan an award for fiscal responsibility? And where’s my debt crisis?) Beyond that, America’s overall retirement system is in big trouble. There’s just one part of that system that’s working well: Social Security. And this suggests that we should make that program stronger, not weaker.

Before I get there, however, let me briefly take on two bad arguments for cutting Social Security that you still hear a lot.

One is that we should raise the retirement age — currently 66, and scheduled to rise to 67 — because people are living longer. This sounds plausible until you look at exactly who is living longer. The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline.

So this common argument amounts, in effect, to the notion that we can’t let janitors retire because lawyers are living longer. And lower-income Americans, in case you haven’t noticed, are the people who need Social Security most.

The other argument is that seniors are doing just fine. Hey, their poverty rate is only 9 percent.

There are two big problems here. First, there are well-known flaws with the official poverty measure, and these flaws almost surely lead to serious understatement of elderly poverty. In an attempt to provide a more realistic picture, the Census Bureau now regularly releases a supplemental measure that most experts consider superior — and this measure puts senior poverty at 14.8 percent, close to the rate for younger adults.

Furthermore, the elderly poverty rate is highly likely to rise sharply in the future, as the failure of America’s private pension system takes its toll.

When you look at today’s older Americans, you are in large part looking at the legacy of an economy that is no more. Many workers used to have defined-benefit retirement plans, plans in which their employers guaranteed a steady income after retirement. And a fair number of seniors (like my father, until he passed away a few months ago) are still collecting benefits from such plans.

Today, however, workers who have any retirement plan at all generally have defined-contribution plans — basically, 401(k)’s — in which employers put money into a tax-sheltered account that’s supposed to end up big enough to retire on. The trouble is that at this point it’s clear that the shift to 401(k)’s was a gigantic failure. Employers took advantage of the switch to surreptitiously cut benefits; investment returns have been far lower than workers were told to expect; and, to be fair, many people haven’t managed their money wisely.

As a result, we’re looking at a looming retirement crisis, with tens of millions of Americans facing a sharp decline in living standards at the end of their working lives. For many, the only thing protecting them from abject penury will be Social Security. Aren’t you glad we didn’t privatize the program?

So there’s a strong case for expanding, not contracting, Social Security. Yes, this would cost money, and it would require additional taxes — a suggestion that will horrify the fiscal scolds, who have been insisting that if we raise taxes at all, the proceeds must go to deficit reduction, not to making our lives better. But the fiscal scolds have been wrong about everything, and it’s time to start thinking outside their box.

Realistically, Social Security expansion won’t happen anytime soon. But it’s an idea that deserves to be on the table — and it’s a very good sign that it finally is.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 22, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Social Security | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Blame For The Debt Ceiling Crisis Rests With Republicans

Are you watching your 401(k) drop? Are you seeing your retirement tank? Are you waiting for higher interest rates on your credit cards and mortgages? Are you nervous about another recession?

Well, thank the Republicans.

This debt crisis is totally of the Republicans’ making. From the beginning we should have had a clean vote—up or down—on the debt ceiling, just as Ronald Reagan and other presidents have done.

If Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans allow a default with  their last minute antics things are only going to get worse. That is  clear.

And the very notion of revisiting this silly scenario in six months  is absurd. For the life of me I can think of no quicker way to sink our  economy. Will that give confidence to the markets? Not a chance. Will it  result in a downgrading of our credit rating? In all likelihood it  will.

The sad truth is that without the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy,  without the oil and gas loopholes and, most important, without two wars  that the Republicans and Bush failed to pay for, we would be in the  black right now, or close to it.

Democrats will have to come up with a grand compromise, hurting many  segments of our society, to bail out the Republicans, much the way Bill  Clinton did in the 1990s. Revenues will have to be part of that package.  Hopefully, that can happen when cooler heads prevail and the Tea Party  stops their nonsense.

In the meantime, if the stock market continues to drop and Americans  are taken to the cleaners, pick up the phone and thank John Boehner and  the Tea Party Republicans for what they have done to your bank accounts  and your savings.

All this sound and fury comes out of the majority in the House and  not one bill on jobs, not one piece of legislation to help our economy.  Sad.

 

By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, July 28, 2011

July 28, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumer Credit, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Mortgages, Politics, Public, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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