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Life expectancy falling for the poorest Americans.

According to a study conducted for the professional journal Health Affairs, life expectancy is falling for significant sections of the working class in the United States, and in some cases has reverted to levels not seen in half a century.

The figures reported are stark. The gap in life expectancy between the most socially privileged and the most socially disadvantaged groups in American society is more than 10 years for women and more than 14 years for men. The authors write: “These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two ‘Americas’…”

The authors draw particular attention to the actual decline in life expectancy among the poorest sections of the white working class, those with less than a high school education. Life expectancy for women in that subgroup fell from more than 78 years in 1990 to 74 years in 2008. The figure for men also declined, by three years.

Across all racial groups—white, black and Hispanic—the authors wrote: “We found that in 2008 US adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Researchers suggested that rising obesity, higher rates of smoking among women, abuse of prescription drugs, and a decline in health insurance coverage—43 percent of the least-educated had no health insurance in 2006—may all have been contributing factors.

Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London, told theNew York Times that the decline in life expectancy for poor white women over the five-year period from 2003 to 2008 brought to mind the seven years of falling life expectancy for Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This comment is all the more striking given that the five years from 2003 to 2008 largely preceded the Wall Street crash of September 2008 and the ensuing plunge of the US and world economy into the deepest slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s. There is no doubt that all the social evils discussed in the Health Affairs report have worsened over the past four years.

The decline for poor white women produced the remarkable result that in 2008 life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was actually lower than for black women with the same educational level, the first time that such an inversion has been reported in relation to a major indicator of social distress.

This fact alone is a refutation of all the peddlers of identity politics who claim that race, not class, is the fundamental division in American society. What is taking place in America is a class catastrophe, a social counterrevolution directed at the entire working class, of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The authors strongly argue that behavioral factors alone, like drug abuse, cannot explain the disparity in health outcomes, which “reflect racial and ethnic differences as well as differences in education and income…” Read more