Historic fall in life expectancy reflects deepening crisis of capitalism today

By Brian Williams
April 17, 2023

Life expectancy continues to plunge in the U.S. Today it has fallen to 76 years old, its lowest level in over a quarter century. This is not from a new COVID-19 epidemic, but the deepening social and moral crisis of capitalism. It reflects the living and working conditions working people faced before the pandemic and since, as the bosses drive to maximize their profits off our backs.

While life expectancy in other imperialist countries rebounded to an average of 82.4 years in 2021, in the U.S. it continued to fall. In fact, U.S. life expectancy is today lower than that of Cuba (79.2 in 2023), Lebanon (79.3) and the Czech Republic (79.8), as well as the U.K., Austria and the Netherlands, all of which are over 80 years.

“Americans are dying and suffering at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary,” said a report titled “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” first issued by the National Academy of Sciences a decade ago. What’s involved is a “longer systemic issue,” the paper’s lead author, Steven Woolf, told the media, and the situation has gotten worse since.

Maternal mortality in the U.S. is at its highest level since 1965. The number of women who died during pregnancy or shortly after rose to 1,205 in 2021, 40% higher than the previous year. For Black women the mortality rate was 2.6 times higher than the rate for Caucasian women. And things are increasingly dire as profit-driven hospital bosses are closing maternity wards in rural areas, and then shutting down more and more rural hospitals altogether.

At the same time, the birth rate in the U.S. has declined for over 70 years, reaching its lowest level ever. And a growing number of young people live with their parents well into adulthood, unable to afford forming a family and pay for housing on their own.

Mortality rates are rising, particularly among the young. Teen drug overdose deaths have doubled in the last three years. This is exacerbated by the widespread availability of the opioid fentanyl, which drug dealers package in counterfeit pills, marijuana and other products.

And new strata of profiteers have arisen from the growing legal marijuana marketing binge.

Nationwide, drug overdose deaths doubled in six years, from 52,404 in 2015 to 106,699 in 2021. Between 2010 and 2021, the number of adolescent deaths from fentanyl and related synthetics rose more than 20-fold, from 38 to 884, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported.

Child mortality is rising at a rate not seen in at least half a century. The “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health” report noted, “American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in other high-income countries.” One in 25 U.S. 5-year-olds today will not make it to their 40th birthday.

Of the 10 most populated cities in the U.S., Philadelphia has the highest rate of infant mortality  — 1.5 times higher than the national average. Babies of African Americans there are over four times more likely to die before their first birthday than Caucasians.

As a “stopgap” measure, the city is now offering 250 expectant mothers living in several Black areas of the city $1,000 a month through the baby’s first birthday.

“In this country health care is run as a business to maximize profits for the hospitals, medical networks, and pharmaceutical- and insurance-company bosses, instead of being available to all free of charge,” said Lea Sherman, Socialist Workers Party candidate for New Jersey General Assembly. “What’s needed is government-funded universal medical care from cradle to grave. This would go a long way to expanding the quality of life and life expectancy.”

Even though life expectancy has declined in the U.S., a bipartisan group of senators is discussing a plan to raise the retirement age to 70 before workers could get full Social Security benefits.

Won as a by-product of the rise of working-class struggles and the industrial union movement in the 1930s, Social Security today is relied on by millions for retirement. As workers can live many years beyond when their labor is exploited by the capitalists for profits, the propertied rulers have continued to seek ways to cut into this social wage.

When the capitalist parties first passed Social Security in 1935, they set the age of eligibility to get benefits at 65, never intending to pay much out. Life expectancy then was below 62, and just below 60 for men.

In 1983 the eligibility age was raised to 67 for those born after 1960. Now talk is in the air among capitalist politicians to raise it even higher.

Millions who got medical coverage when the federal government under President Donald Trump expanded Medicaid during the COVID-19 pandemic can now expect to see that evaporate on May 11. That’s when President Joseph Biden says he will proclaim the pandemic over and these programs will be shut down.

That means all kinds of care previously covered will be shifted to “the commercial market,” as CNN put it. COVID vaccines that have been free will then — Moderna says — cost $130.