In the 1980s, social observers lamented the growing income inequality in the U.S. Now, attention is being drawn to
a parallel trend: a widening gap in mortality rates between the middle class and the poor.
In a study summarized in the latest issue of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.'s Statistical Bulletin, researchers Susan Queen, Gregory Pappas, Wilbur Hadden, and Gail Fisher of the National Center for Health Statistics compared death rates among different income and education groups for 1960 and 1986 (the latest data available). They found that death rates among better-educated and higher-income Americans have fallen far faster than rates for high school dropouts and the poor.
From 1960 to 1986, for example, the age-adjusted mortality rate plunged 50%, to 2.8 per 1,000 population, among white male college grads aged 25 to 64 but fell just 15%, to 7.6 per 1,000, for similar high school dropouts. In 1986, the death rate for white men with incomes less than $9,000 was 16 per 1,000, compared with 2.4 for those earning $25,000 or more. The patterns were similar among black men, but somewhat less dramatic among women overall.
The trend since 1986 won't be known until a similar 1993 survey is analyzed. But it's noteworthy that life expectancy (a figure derived from mortality rates) actually declined among blacks in the late 1980s, while white life expectancy continued to improve (chart). Given that more blacks live in poverty and that real pay of low-wage workers of all races fell during the decade, it seems unlikely that the divide between socio-
economic groups narrowed.
The U.S. isn't the only country where the middle and upper classes have made far bigger gains in life expectancy than the poor. Similar trends have been reported in Britain, France, and Hungary. Indeed, a recent survey in the British Medical Journal suggests that life expectancy among some of Britain's poor may have declined to levels last seen in the 1950s.