Poverty a Death Sentence, Sanders Declares, as GAO Links Inequality to Mortality

WASHINGTON, September 8 – A groundbreaking Government Accountability Office (GAO) study commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), released today, provides a comprehensive picture of income, wealth, life expectancy, and retirement security among older Americans. GAO found not only that the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer, but provided evidence that led Sanders to conclude that poverty is, in effect, a death sentence: The rich are living longer lives, while poor Americans are dying young.
GAO found that among Americans aged 51-61 in 1992, fewer than half of those in the poorest 20 percent of America’s wealth distribution had survived by 2014—48 percent. Among the richest 20 percent, 75.5 percent were still alive. The poorest 20 percent were twice as likely to die over the 22-year period than the wealthiest 20 percent.  
“Poverty is a life-threatening issue for millions of people in this country, and this report confirms it,” said Sanders. “We are in a crisis never before seen in a rich, industrialized democracy. For three straight years, overall life expectancy in the wealthiest nation in world history has been declining, often driven by deaths of desperation and despair: liver disease, drug overdoses, and suicide. We must put an end to the obscene income and wealth inequality in our country, and ensure living wages, quality health care, and retirement security for our seniors as human rights. If we do not urgently act to solve the economic distress of millions of Americans, a whole generation will be condemned to early death.”
GAO similarly observed this massive disparity in life expectancy when examining income and education: only half of those without college degrees and in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution survived to 2014. Among those with college degrees and in the top 20 percent, based on mid-career earnings, 80 percent were still alive. 
The astonishing contrasts in income, wealth and life expectancy among older Americans emerged from GAO analysis of nationally representative datasets linked to restricted administrative data, as well as interviews with researchers in the field. The study offers a new window into the socioeconomic conditions of older and middle-aged Americans across the income spectrum.
GAO also confirmed America’s decades-long growth in wealth inequality: The average wealth of the top 20 percent of older households more than doubled, from $2.1 million in 1989 to $4.6 million in 2016. By comparison, the average wealth of an older household in the bottom 20 percent plummeted, from $4,500 in 1989, to negative $4,700 in 2013—more debt than assets.
GAO research also highlighted profound income inequality, finding that one in five older households lived on less than $22,000 in 2016, with the bottom quintile averaging just $14,000 in annual income. By comparison, the top 20 percent of older households had average annual income 28 times higher than the bottom 20 percent—$398,000 in 2016, up from $242,000 in 1989. 
Yet inequality was not fueled simply by the top 20 percent of older households accruing more income and wealth than the rest. Rather, the top 1 percent of older households pulled far away from the rest of the top 20 percent, securing some of the largest gains over thirty years.
GAO found that the top 1 percent of older households increased their wealth from $15 million in 1989 to an average of $37 million in 2016. This is more than ten times the wealth of older households in the following 19 percentiles, which averaged $2.9 million. Average income similarly doubled among the richest 1 percent of older households, from $1.6 million annually in 1992 to $3 million a year in 2016. This is 10 times the annual income of the top quintile as a whole in 2016, and over 200 times the income of the bottom 20 percent of older households.
The research also showed persistent inequalities in income and wealth between white households and families of color. In 2014, white households in the bottom 20 percent had about $9,700 more in median income and $119,000 more in median wealth than comparable minority households.
The report released today also noted the implications of these findings on retirement security. In 2016, very few—11 percent—of the households in the bottom 20 percent had retirement accounts. Only 19 percent of this group owned a home, a drop from 28 percent in 2007. The average home equity of the bottom 20 percent was only $2,000. By contrast, most of the top 20 percent of Americans own a home, with home equity averaging $559,000—280 times greater than the bottom quintile.
The report commissioned by Sanders builds on his longstanding legislative efforts in the Senate Health Committee. In 2011, as chairman of the Primary Health and Aging Subcommittee, Senator Sanders held the hearing, “Is Poverty a Death Sentence?” and released a report by the same title on the role of poverty in the early deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. 
In a November 2013 hearing, “Dying Young: Why Your Social and Economic Status May Be a Death Sentence in America,” the Senator invited Sabrina Shrader, a resident of McDowell County, West Virginia, to testify. McDowell County suffers from the lowest life expectancy in the country for men—64 years—comparable to average male life expectancies in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Yemen. Men in wealthy Fairfax County, Virginia, located 350 miles away, lived nearly two decades longer, with an average life expectancy of 82 years.  
Read the GAO report here.