Only the Poor Die Young

The lives of people who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder are shorter and less healthy, on average, than those of people on higher rungs. What is needed are more targeted welfare policies that account for the effects of selective upward social mobility and different rates of diffusion of behavioral change.

ROTTERDAM – People who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder (indicated by their level of education, occupation, or income) have shorter and less healthy lives, on average, than those on higher rungs. Indeed, life expectancy at birth often varies by 5-10 years, depending on social and economic well-being, with poorer people spending 10-20 more years of life suffering from illness or disability than their wealthier counterparts.

In the nineteenth century, this situation would not have been surprising, given low average income, widespread poverty, and lack of social security. But such data are commonly reported for high-income countries today, including those ranking high on indices of economic prosperity and human development – even Western Europe’s highly developed welfare states.

Since the end of World War II, Western European countries have tried to reduce socioeconomic inequality, or offset its consequences, through progressive taxation, social security programs, and a wide range of collectively financed provisions, such as public housing, education, health care, and cultural and leisure facilities. But, while these policies have reduced inequalities in some social and economic outcomes, including income, housing quality, and health-care access, they have been insufficient to eliminate health inequalities.

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