This paper uses data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to explore the extent and causes of widening differences in life expectancy by socioeconomic status (SES) for older persons. We construct alternative measures of SES using educational attainment and average (career) earnings in the prime working ages of 41-50. We also use information on causes of death, health status and various behavioral indicators (smoking, drinking, and obesity) that are believed to be predictors of premature death in an effort to explain the causes of the growing disparities in life expectancy between people of high and low SES. The paper finds that: (1) There is strong statistical evidence in the HRS of a growing inequality of mortality risk by SES among more recent birth cohorts compared with cohorts born before 1930. (2) Both educational attainment and career earnings as constructed from Social Security records are equally useful indicators of SES, although the distinction in mortality risk by education is greatest for those with and without a college degree. (3) There has been a significant decline in the risk of dying from cancer or heart conditions for older Americans in the top half of the income distribution, but we find no such reduction of mortality risk in the bottom half of the distribution. (4) The inclusion of the behavioral variables and health status result in substantial improvement in the predictions of mortality, but they do not identify the sources of the increase in differential mortality. The policy implications of the findings are: (1) Indexing the retirement age to increases in average life expectancy to stabilize OASDI finances may have unintended distributional consequences, because most mortality gains have been concentrated among workers in the top half of the earnings distribution. (2) The fact that we cannot identify the sources of the increase in differential mortality contributes to uncertainty about the distributional effects of increases in the retirement age in future years.
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