Poor Americans Die Younger

Poverty in America

The Senate subcommittee on aging held a hearing Wednesday into extraordinary disparities in life expectancy between regions of the United States and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within cities. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the panel’s chairman, said a recurring theme from witnesses was that “poverty in America is in fact very expensive.”

“If people don’t have access to health care, if they don’t have access to education, if they don’t have access to jobs and affordable housing then we end up paying not only in terms of human suffering and the shortening of life expectancy but in actual dollars,” Sanders added.

He cited a report by the Institute of Medicine that found Americans have shorter life expectancies than people in 16 other high-income countries. Another study ranked life expectancy in the U.S. 40th for males and 39th for females across 187 countries in 2010. The disparity between the U.S. and other nations occurs despite the fact that Americans spend more on health care than any other country in the world, Sanders noted.

While overall U.S. life expectancy is inching up, the gains are less than in other countries and vary widely depending on income, gender, race and education. Those without a high school degree in the U.S. live shorter lives and experience poorer health than those with higher levels of education.

Dr. Reisch

For women in the United States there is a 12-year gap in life expectancy between wealthy Marin County, Calif., where the average person lives to be 85 years old, and Perry County, Ky., with an average life expectancy of 73 years.

American men live the longest in Fairfax County, Va. Life expectancy for men in the wealthy Washington, D.C. suburbs is 82 years compared to 64 for men in McDowell County, W. Va., just 350 miles away.

Nationwide, the poor have higher rates of many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, depression, and disability, according to Dr. Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The lower people’s income, the earlier they die and the sicker they live,” he said. “Neighborhoods in Boston and Baltimore have a lower life expectancy than Ethiopia and Sudan. Azerbajian has a higher life expectancy than areas of Chicago.”

Sabrina Shrader, another witness, grew up in McDowell County, W. Va., where the men have the same average life expectancy as men in Botswana or Namibia. Women in her hometown die younger than women in El Salvador or Mongolia.

Read Sen. Sanders' report "Is Poverty a Death Sentence?