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The Social Safety Net, Income and U.S. Life Expectancy

Words by Leon Kaye

Evidence has long suggested correlations between income and life expectancy. As innovations in medicine and public health emerged, it became clear that those who had access to the best in health care, food and housing often lived longer than their less affluent peers. But new research suggests that not only does income have an impact on life span, but living in an area where social services are readily available can help boost the length of life for even the poorest citizens. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, these findings should be read by anyone in the corporate responsibility space who has influence over how his or her organization devotes resources within the local community.

If you take a look at America's 100 largest metropolitan areas (or as the study describes as “commuting zones”), you’ll note that eight of the 10 areas with the longest overall life expectancy are in regions with warmer climates. View the data geographically, and the regions where citizens have longer life spans are generally clustered along the West Coast and Northeast. New York City residents have the longest overall life expectancy, nudging past Santa Barbara, California, at No. 2. The bottom three on the list are Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, and Gary, Indiana.

Surely intangibles play a part. New Yorkers will remind you that climbing up stairs at subway stations and apartment buildings, while chasing buses, subways and taxis, is why they are generally skinny compared to most Americans. Californians and Floridians will boast about the ample sunshine, which leads to ample Vitamin D and often a more optimistic outlook on life. New York has long benefited from its legacy of corporate philanthropy. West Coasters will tout more casual and creative work environments. Nevertheless, other forces surely are at hand.

So, what’s going on? This study, co-written by economists from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, the U.S. Treasury and McKinsey, found that the poorest Americans tended to live longest in more affluent cities that offered more opportunities to social services and education.

True, being rich in Gary or Cincinnati, Ohio, is still more comfortable than being poor in the Bay Area or Miami. But while the likes of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson decry what they believe is out-of-control social spending, this research posits that living amongst affluent and highly-educated citizens — if they are willing to pay for such services with their taxes — can lead to a longer life for poorer Americans. In fact, since the early 2000s, areas like New York City and San Francisco have seen significant increases in life expectancy among the poor.

Poverty’s impact on men is especially telling, as there is a wider gap in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest men than between poor women and rich women. Deindustrialization, the opioid epidemic and mass incarceration are all parts of this growing problem. With those challenges also in mind, policymakers need to take a hard look at this data as society struggles to answer phenomena such as the sudden decrease in life expectancy among middle-aged whites, for both men and women.

Indeed, people always complain that they are being left behind, which explains the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who both tout campaigns funded by supporter donations rather than political action committees. But now too many are dying too soon, and they are of all races and backgrounds, in both urban and rural areas. It is now clear that inequality is having a big impact on not only access to opportunities, but also on the most important thing, the length of one’s life.

Image credit: TakingActionInGary/Wiki Commons

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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