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This Expensive Life

The article, Why Are Poor Americans Dying so Much Earlier than Rich Americans?, references a Brookings study which contains the following chart:


Note the disturbing trend of life expectancy increasing the higher up you are in the income distribution.  This is probably not surprising to many, wealth buys you better medical care and money concerns are a major source of stress.  The fact that the discrepancy between the top decile of income earners and the bottom is widening is more troubling as income equality continues to grow in our society.  Being in the top decile of income amounted to an extra 11 years of life compared to the bottom decile for the cohort of women born in 1940.  I don’t know about you but it would be hard for me to put a price tag on 11 extra years of life!

Framing discussions in class on income inequality relative to life expectancy was powerful for my students; this isn’t just about being able to take nice vacations and pay for premium cable TV; we are talking about a 14% increase in lifespan.  The article also addresses Social Security benefits, and the fact that the wealthy collect benefits for many more years than the poor.  Again this makes sense when you think about it, but I was surprised when I first saw the graphic displaying just how large the gap is between rich and poor:

Men Soc Sec

These charts provided great fodder for the weekly quiz, students struggled with questions #2 and #3 asking them to explain how the graphics support arguments in the article.  Reasoning from evidence and using evidence to support argumentation are vital skills to develop in a QR class.  Here’s the quiz, enjoy!

Q5 Rich/Poor Life Expectancy

Please type answers when possible and leave adequate space for computation work.

  1. The article, Why Are Poor Americans Dying so Much Earlier than Rich Americans?[1], references a Brookings study[2] which contains the following chart (1st chart above).

    a. The study contains the sentences: “Among those born in 1920, a woman in the lowest income group surviving to 50 could expect to live to age 80. A woman in the highest income group could expect to live to age 84.” Circle the points on the chart above that verify these statements.

    b. Use the chart below (and above) to compute the percentage difference for Life Expectancy at age 50 for women born in 1920 and 1940 for the top and bottom deciles.

  2. The Brookings study also has charts showing predicted years of receiving Social Security benefits. The article we read states “one of the programs that’s specifically intended to help poor Americans through retirement isn’t really working to their benefit anymore.”  How does the following chart (2nd chart above) support this statement?
  3. How do all of these charts provide “evidence of the problem getting steadily worse.”?


  1. Joel Best in DLS talks about how social problems are patterned. Our article references smoking as “the leading cause of preventable death.”  What does it mean to say smoking deaths are patterned?
  2. Joel Best in DLS talks about the importance of measurement in creating statistics. The Brookings study also discusses this problem, stating “The information needed to perform this kind of analysis is not easy to assemble.  Researchers must obtain reliable indicators of Americans’ socioeconomic status at some common age.”  Looking at the charts above, how did the Brookings researchers define “rich” and “poor”?


[1] http://www.thenation.com/article/why-are-poor-americans-dying-so-much-earlier-than-rich-americans/

[2] http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2016/01/life-expectancy-gaps-promise-social-security/execsummary_chapter4_laterretirement_inequality_longevity.pdf







2 thoughts on “This Expensive Life

  1. This is really interesting. I actually added a couple of questions on to it. 1.) If poor people receive x dollars a month in SS and the upper 10% receive the max (2,200?) then what is the difference in payout on average over their average life span (assuming born in 1940)? From a different perspective: 2.) Assume a poor person pays 6.2% for 35 years on an average wage of 20K, and a rich person pays 6.2% for 35 years on an average wage of 100,000k, how much does each pay into SS.


    Posted by peterebrown | January 5, 2017, 11:05 pm

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