At this point, West Virginians could probably do without any more studies telling them how the state’s population, on average, is older, poorer, less healthy and less happy than the rest of the United States.
However, some recent information on the link between wealth and life-expectancy should raise some alarm, even in the most jaded portions of rural America, including the Mountain State.
The Government Accountability Office reported that wealthy Americans are much more likely to live into their 70s and 80s than middle-class and poor Americans, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.
If the premise of the study sounds familiar here in West Virginia, it’s because it was commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., after visiting McDowell County while on the presidential campaign trail in 2016.
The overall findings sound easy enough to digest, even if it’s something of a bleak description of the current health care landscape — wealthier individuals can afford better health care and generally have easier access to it, therefore they live longer.
The details are truly concerning, though.
For instance, according to the study, of Americans in their 50s in 1991, 75 percent of the wealthiest were still alive in 2014, when they would have been anywhere from 73 to 82 years old. For poorer Americans over that same time frame, the survival rate was the equivalent of a coin toss — 50 percent.
An example cited by Sanders and the Post noted the life expectancy in McDowell County is age 64. In wealthy Fairfax County, in neighboring Virginia, it’s 82. That’s a near 20-year difference that can mostly be chalked up to economic factors like the types of jobs available, quality of life in the community, income and the access and affordability of health care. Economics also factor in to wealthier Americans being able to save for retirement to prolong their quality of life.
Essentially, the poorest 20 percent of older residents have no assets to speak of (like owning a house or a car), haven’t been able to save for retirement and are relying entirely on social safety net programs to survive.
This is where some might suggest that poorer Americans in areas with less opportunity should have bought a pair of bootstraps when they were younger, been more responsible and scratched and clawed their way to prosperity and the American Dream. But it’s not that simple.
The study shows that the gap between rich and poor when it comes to health and wealth isn’t simply wide, it’s widening. In other words, the wealthy are continuing to get wealthier while the middle and lower classes are barely moving in terms of increased earnings. One example cited in the study shows that, again, looking at the poorest 20 percent of older Americans, 28 percent owned a home in 2007. In 2016, that number had dropped to 19 percent. Stagnating wages and fewer opportunities make basic things like health care and retirement savings borderline unattainable for many Americans, while placing them in a situation where something like a medical emergency can completely wipe them out financially.
So, what can the country do about it?
Redistribution of wealth is tricky, but rescinding tax cuts that do nothing but help corporations with stock buybacks, and instead investing that money in bolstering struggling communities is a start. Recent money appropriated to help combat the opioid crisis and aid recovery so those individuals can re-enter society and the workplace is another. The most obvious problem is the health care system in the U.S. While “Medicare-for-all” might not be the magic bullet some envision, continuing to undermine the Affordable Care Act and seeking repeal of pre-existing condition protections that would allow insurance companies to run amok doesn’t help either.
The country can’t allow its most fragile to live shorter and shorter lives just because they live in an area where industry has shuttered and addiction has ravaged the population. These are the people America should be working to protect. That message is clearer now than ever before.