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The Poor’s Life Expectancy Varies Based on Where They Live

The life expectancy gap between New York and Gary, Indiana is over four years

Rust Belt cities like Detroit had the greatest disparities in life expectancy between rich and poor. (Barry Lewis/In Pictures/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

Would it surprise you to learn that rich people live longer than the poor? Probably not. But it turns out that there’s another factor in the life expectancy of people who live in poverty: where they happen to live.

newly-released study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, confirms that there is a 15-year gap in life expectancy among the richest one percent of people in the U.S. and the poorest and that geography can considerably influence life expectancy.

The study examined associations between longevity and income using Social Security Administration death records and earning information between 1999 and 2014. This data shows that nationally, richer men live nearly 15 years longer than their low-income counterparts and richer women live ten years longer. The analysis also shows that life expectancy gaps grew during the 2000s—higher-income men gained an average of 0.2 years of life expectancy each year between 2001 and 2014, while their counterparts gained only 0.08 years of life expectancy per year.

The disparities between income and life expectancy appeared even more dramatic broken down based on ZIP code. It turns out that poor Americans in cities with higher than average incomes and education were more likely to live longer than low-income populations in less affluent areas.

Regions that were particularly affected include Las Vegas and Rust Belt cities like Cincinnati, Detroit and Indianapolis. In last place is Gary, Indiana—there, the mean age at death is just 77.4 years of age, as compared to New York’s mean age of 81.8 years of age. These geographic differences also affected the poor more than the rich.

What explains the gap between rich and poor and its ties to geography? It’s complicated, write Emily Badger and Christopher Ingram for The Washington Post. The study’s authors don’t draw conclusions about the reasons—they simply document the disparity. But Badger and Ingram note that everything from the availability of universal preschool to public transportation, smoking bans, health literacy and pollution could explain the gaps. The study supports some of those suppositions: Geographic differences were associated with healthy behaviors, like smoking, but not with things like access to medical care or labor market conditions.

Even as researchers learn more about why some areas have lower life expectancies, people who live in poverty continue to contend with things like deteriorating housing and addiction. And even if they want to move to a city associated with a longer life, they often can’t pick up and uproot their lives due to financial constraints. When it comes to living in poverty, lack of money seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Want to take a look at life expectancies in your area? The New York Times' interactive map is a good start—and the study itself contains figures that illustrate more specific points.

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