How America's Superrich Are Draining the Poor of a Longer Life Span

A new study shows that runaway inequality also is creating a more deadly gap—a growing life expectancy gap between the rich and the poor.

Columbia S.C. - November 21, 2015 - Bernie Sanders speaks at 20/20's Criminal Justice Forum which was held at Allen University. Dr. Ben Carson and Martin' O'Malley were also in attendance.
Photo Credit: Crush Rush /

The American people have a deep sense of fairness. We are angry about the growing pay gap between the top 100 CEOs and the average worker -- a gap that has widened from $45 to $1 in 1970, to a staggering $844 to $1 today. (See Runaway Inequality)

A new study shows that runaway inequality also is creating a more deadly gap -- a growing life expectancy gap between the rich and the poor.

Just as with inequality, there always has been a gap in life expectancy based on income. But something new and disturbing is now underway: The life expectancy gap is accelerating. Runaway inequality is robbing lower income groups of the longevity they deserve.

This was not expected. On the contrary, as our country grew richer and richer, we believed the gap would narrow. Advances in medicine, health education and our overall standard of living should have increased the life-spans for every group, regardless of income, race or ethnicity.

Unfortunately, the picture is quite bleak for the bottom 10%.  Among low-income women the average life expectancy has not budged over the last generation, holding steady at 80.4 years. Low income men saw a slight increase from 74.3 years to 76.0 years.

Meanwhile, if you're the beneficiary of runaway inequality, break out the Champagne and birthday candles. Your average life expectancy has jumped from 84.1 to 90.5 years of age for wealthy women, and from 79.3 to 88 years for well-off men.

Instead of narrowing, the longevity gap between rich and poor has actually increased by 7 long years during the reign of runaway inequality!

The Longevity Gap is Color Coded

While this is a tragedy for all low-income Americans, it is of special importance to people of color.

  • Blacks households comprise 24% of those earning less than15,000 year but only  5% of those households earning more than200,000 per year.  

  • Hispanic families comprise 15% of the poorest households and 5% of the richest.

  • Meanwhile white households comprise 56% of the those in the lowest income brackets and 80% of the highest brackets. (Percentages derived from data found here)

A Focus on Class is a Focus on Race

Sanders campaign is being criticized for concentrating too much on class and not enough on race -- that he is a single issue candidate who is insensitive to racial disparities.

But if you care about the gross unfairness of the longevity gap, a focus on class is very much a focus on race.  In addition, such a focus could produce powerful alliances, since 56% of the poor are white. There's a rainbow coalition for economic and racial justice to be formed.

It is critically important to understand that those who prosper from runaway inequality are willing to accommodate a demand that removes racial disparities among the poor. However, establishment elites are not willing to reverse runaway inequality.

But our progressive goal must be to close the obscene wealth and income gap, while also eliminating poverty entirely. That requires a redistribution of income and wealth from financial and corporate elites to the rest of us, something those elites will fiercely resist.

Neoliberalism and the Drive for Austerity

Reversing runaway inequality and the gruesome longevity gap requires that we understand how we got here.

In the late 1970s a new political-economic philosophy captured both political parties -- academics call it neoliberalism-- Bernie calls it the establishment.  These new policies consisted of cuts in taxes, cuts in regulations, cuts in the social safety net and a reduction of the power of labor unions.  

This was supposed to lead to a massive profit and investment boom that would make all boats rise. Unfortunately, these policies, especially the deregulation of Wall Street, unleashed the forces of runaway inequality.  The result: prosperity and longevity for the rich, austerity for the rest of us.

With the new economic philosophy came a new social philosophy. You are on your own. If you're poor, do something about it. If you're unemployed, go find a job. If you want to go to college, take out loans. If you want a poverty program, go to jail.

The entire notion of public job creation, especially for young people of color and the poor, was off the table. Instead, many of those at the bottom of the income ladder were vacuumed up into the criminal justice system. As inequality grew, so did the prison population. We now have the most prisoners in the world, both in total number and as a percentage of the population.

For more than 40 years this neoliberal consensus went unchallenged. Yes, there were differences between the parties. The liberal establishment supported more diversity on race, gender and sexual orientation, and slightly less austerity. But neither party interfered with runway inequality as they competed for campaign contributions from economic elites, (as well as fat speaking fees and lucrative financial jobs after leaving political office.)

Then came the financial crash and the Great Recession. All that financial deregulation, so forcefully promoted by Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush came home to roost. But Wall Street used its enormous political muscle within the neoliberal establishment to get the bailouts it needed. The rest of American took the hit.

Since then, the largest banks have grown even bigger while 95% of all the new income generated by the economy has gone to the top 1%.  

Occupy, Warren and Sanders

Neoliberalism was so deeply embedded in Congress that by the summer of 2010, President Obama called for more austerity. Not only did he succeed in cutting government jobs (among the most important middle class jobs for people of color) but he wanted a "grand bargain" with the Republicans that included cuts in Social Security.  But a bunch of kids beat it back. In the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street completely changed the subject from austerity to inequality as "We are the 99%" captured the political discourse.

The 900 Occupy encampments around the world tapped into our anger towards Wall Street and the politicians who coddled the rich and powerful. But Occupy couldn't build sustainable organizational and political structures.  

Elizabeth Warren picked up the banner. Like no other Democrat she took Wall Street to task again and again. She became a national phenomena as she successfully ran for the Senate.

And now Bernie.  

The Sanders campaign is a direct assault on the neo-liberal establishment. Hillary, however, is part of it. Her donors, her advisors, her media contacts, and her family are a part of the top one percent. They represent the liberal wing of the neoliberal establishment.  

Hillary claims that her positions are the same as Bernie's, but they are not.

  • He wants a15 minimum wage, She wants12, a big difference if you are poor.  

  • He wants a financial transaction tax to pay for free higher education. She wants neither.

  • He wants to break up the big banks. She only wants more oversight.

  • He wants single-payer universal health care. She wants to keep the private insurance companies in play.

Every one of Bernie's policies is an attack on runaway inequality and the neoliberal establishment. Hillary's positions can be accommodated within that establishment.  It is not an accident that Wall Street paid so much to hear Hillary speak. It is not an accident that they are contributing millions to her Super-Pac.

But it is short-sighted to think that Wall Street is buying Hillary's votes. Rather, they are re-cementing her into the neoliberal framework. She can be for change, but not enough to reverse runaway inequality.

The Shameless Embrace of Obama

Since Hillary can not directly attack her own backers and advisors -- the elite establishment that profits from runaway inequality and poverty --- her racial justice strategy is to wrap herself around President Obama.

It's not a racial dog whistle -- it's a bullhorn.

Any critique of her neoliberalism, or her health care position, or her Wall Street speaking fees and Super-Pac contributions is instantly reframed as an attack on the first Black President.  "He did it too!"

But the American people are not stupid. After 40 years of neoliberal disaster unfairness and austerity, we have had enough. We don't want a growing longevity gap, a growing income gap, a growing wealth gap, and a growing racial gap. We don't want the most prisoners in the world, the most child poverty and the most expensive health care system.

We no longer want to live in a country torn apart by runaway inequality and we want someone who is willing to fight the rigged economic system, political corruption and "the billionaire class."

Bernie's doing just that and that is precisely what worries Team Hillary.

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with labor unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His book Runaway Inequality: An Activist Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this educational campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

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