Income Inequality and Health: Can the Poor Have Longer and Better Lives?

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

The issue of income inequality has been in the news a lot lately. The gap between rich Americans and poor Americans has grown considerably since the 1970s. The United States now ranks first among the developed nations of the world in terms income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient, a way of describing the distribution of wealth in a society. Globally, we’re fourth overall, surpassed only by Lebanon, Russia and the Ukraine.

Income inequality is a serious problem, so much so that Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller called it, “the most important problem that we are facing today.” Income inequality negatively affects economic growth, social mobility, political stability and democratic participation. It also affects the public health.

Quite simply, wealthier Americans tend to live healthier and longer lives. As the income gap has grown, so has the longevity gap. For example, consider the report recently released by the Brookings Institute that looked at income and differential mortality.

Between 1977 and 2007, Brookings economists Barry Bosworth and Kathleen Burke found that life expectancy increased an average of five years for men and one year for women.  But the gains in life expectancy accrued primarily to the rich. The richest 10% of Americans gained 5.9 and 3.1 years of life for men and women, respectively.  For men in the poorest 10%, the increase in life expectancy was less than two years.  The poorest women actually lost two years of life.

To really get a sense of how stark this divide is, however, consider the recent article by New York Times Reporter Annie Lowrey. She compared average life expectancy in Fairfax County, Virginia with that of McDowell County, West Virginia. A suburb of Washington, DC, Fairfax has one of the highest median incomes in the country:  $107,000. Men in Fairfax also have a mean life expectancy of 82 years. By contrast, the coal mining communities in McDowell have one of the lowest median incomes: $23,000. Men in that county only live to 64 on average.

There are a myriad of reasons why this longevity gap exists. The most obvious is access to health care. Wealthier individuals are more likely to have health insurance, a fact that the Obama Administration is trying to change through the Affordable Care Act.

But even if the Affordable Care Act succeeds in reducing the number of under- or uninsured Americans — which now seems likely, given that 8 million people signed up for one of the new health insurance exchanges — inequities in access will still exist.

For example, wealthier Americans will have far more choice in the types and numbers of doctors they can see.  Many clinicians are now refusing to accept any insurance plan, particularly publicly funded plans like Medicaid. Others are setting up concierge practices that guarantee same day appointments to those willing to pay. By contrast, poorer patients will have to wait for treatment, assuming they can find a doctor willing to see them.

The quality of care that the poor receive is also lower. Numerous studies have shown that lower-income patients are more likely to be misdiagnosed, prescribed the wrong medication, or suffer from complications of treatment. This is not because their doctors are incompetent or don’t care about their poorer patients. Rather, doctors that serve lower-income communities often do not have the time to adequately examine patients, take a full medical history, properly explain treatment options, or prescribe the newest drugs; they simply have too many patients to see and insurance reimbursement rates are too low to provide a full range of services.

Finally, wealthier individuals tend to live healthier lives overall. They are less likely to smoke, to drink to excess, and to be overweight. Part of this is due to differences in education, but part of it is due to time and resources. The investment banker who works in Manhattan can afford to buy fresh produce and other healthy meals at the local Whole Foods. He can also afford a gym membership, and he likely lives in a neighborhood that offer safe opportunities for exercising out-of-doors. By contrast, the single mother of four who lives in the Bronx must feed her family on a limited income, buying pre-packaged food at the corner market. She also probably lacks the time to exercise, assuming that the local playground isn’t overrun with drug dealers and gang members.

As we struggle with the issue of health care in America — expanding access to treatment while controlling costs — it is important to remember that the current health care crisis is not just about medical insurance. There are other problems in our society that will affect the outcome of the current debate. The Affordable Care Act will help address some of the current inequities in our health care system. Until we attack the fundamental issue of poverty and the income gap, however, we are probably just putting a small bandage on a large and gaping wound.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 24, 2014. It is also available on the WAMC website. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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