US Rich Get Richer -
Poor Get Sicker
(Big Surprise)
By Maggie Fox
Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The rich are getting not just richer but healthier, too, while the poor are getting more than their fair share of illnesses in the United States, the government said Thursday. Researchers who helped put together the government's annual report card on the state of the nation's health said they were struck by how strongly health, income and education are linked in this country, despite efforts to give everyone the same shot at a healthy life. ``We might be able to do a better job,'' Elsie Pamuck, a health researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), who helped write the report, said in a telephone interview. ``What we see is this overall picture of how important your socioeconomic status is, measured by either education or income,'' she added. ``What I think is very striking about this report is just how pervasive this is and how it cuts across a whole range of health behaviors.''
Despite years spent trying to iron out inequalities, the report finds that life is still not fair in the United States. Rich people are much more likely than anyone else to enjoy good health. And the rich are getting richer. ``Income inequality in the United States increased between 1970 and 1996. The growth in inequality was due primarily to larger increases in income among high-income than low-income households,'' the report, more than 400 pages thick, says. The top 20 percent of earners made 22 percent more during that time, while most people earned only between 5 and 7 percent more.
``Children under 18 years of age were 40 percent more likely to live in poverty than was the population as a whole in 1996,'' the report said. This was especially true if a single mother headed the household. And minorities are still the poorest group. ``On the whole, black persons and Hispanic persons had a poverty rate about 3.3 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,'' it said. There is plenty of good news in the report. Heart disease and cancer. the two biggest killers of Americans, are declining in all groups.
``Life expectancy is at an all-time high, infant mortality is at an all-time low,'' Pamuck added. ``We have seen significant declines in recent years in the main causes of death, in heart disease and in cancer, from HIV and from gun-related violence.'' Life expectancy at birth for someone born in 1900 was 47.3 years. Someone born in 1996 can expect to live to be 76.1 years old, as compared to 75.8 in 1995 and 75.5 for someone born in 1993.
Someone who was 65 in 1996 can expect to live another 17.5 years, up from 17.4 in 1995 and 11.9 in 1900. But income still affects this expectation greatly. ``During 1979-89 white men who were 45 years of age and who had family income of at least $25,000 could expect to live 6.6 years longer than men with family income less than $10,000 (33.9 years compared with 27.3 years),'' the report said. ``This is the first time a lot of this information has been pulled together and examined in a fairly systematic way,'' Pamuck said.
She said the Public Health Service might need to stop looking at health in a piecemeal way -- for instance how to fight high blood pressure or how to persuade people to stop smoking -- and look at ways of improving health overall. ``As long as we approach it in a piecemeal fashion we are sort of battling the tide,'' she said. ``Maybe there are better and more comprehensive ways to approach it and I really don't think we've had that dialogue in this country.''