Good News: Racial health gap narrows ... Bad News: It's still wide

Since most of what we report here on Muckrakers is rather bleak, it’s always enjoyable to report something positive.

So, here’s the good news: the gap in life expectancy between black folks and white folks in America has narrowed.

But there’s bad news: the gap is still pretty big.

According to the newest data released by the Centers for Disease Control, Americans lived about 146 days longer in 2011 than they did in 2010. Neat, huh? You could do a lot with 146 days.

But that’s an average, and your actual life expectancy depends a lot more on your race and sex.

In 2011, white folks had a life expectancy of 78.8, while black folks could expect to live only 74.5 years, on average. That difference–four years–makes that extra 146 days look like nothin’.

This gap has existed as long as the CDC has data for it–back to 1900. Back then, the race gap in life expectancy was huge–14.6 years. The gap’s been narrowing ever since, with some decent progress in the last decade. Take a look:

Life expectancy, however, is sort of a confusing statistic. While we say that it’s how long we expect a person to live, it would actually be better titled “average death age.”

It takes into account all the people who die, whether they’re 15 or 150 years old, and takes an average from there.

But the CDC also calculates a stat called “Life expectancy from 65,” which simply put, means how long we might expect you to live if you make it to 65. The racial gap here is actually much narrower, but it still exists.

If you had a 65 year-old white person and a 65 year-old black person, the statistics say you’d expect the white person to live another 19.1 years, on average, or to age 84.1. The black 65 year-old would only be expected to make it to 82.9, or 17.8 more years.

Interestingly enough, that gap was actually smaller in 1950 and 1960 than it is now. The gap between how long you live past 65 by race increased from 1950 to 1995 and then started going back down. Take a look:

If you make it to 75, the difference between being white and black in terms of life expectancy is even smaller, about 4 tenths of a year. Of course, that’s the same amount that American life expectancy increased in 2011 compared to 2010, so if you’re black, you didn’t share much in the yearly gain.

One of the main reasons life expectancy at birth is so much different than life expectancy at 65 or 75 is infant mortality. In the U.S., infant mortality is high compared to other nations.

Not only do countries like France, Germany and Great Britain have fewer infants die, but we’re also being beaten by countries like Cuba, Estonia and Croatia. So much for the world’s greatest health care system.

The racial health gap in this area is particularly wide, although thankfully it’s also narrowing. For every 1,000 births to white mothers, 5.6 infants die. For black mothers, it’s more than double at 12.9. Here’s a chart of the gap since 1983:

You might have noticed that I haven’t included Latino folks, something that’s rather odd since the Latino population in the U.S. has skyrocketed.

Interestingly enough, Latino people have a higher life expectancy than either whites or blacks. And the Latino infant mortality rate has been comparable to the white rate since 1983. As we said before, life expectancy at birth is 78.7 for white folks and 74.5 years for black folks. But Latino men live to be 81.2 years and Latino women hit 83.5 years.

Latino people, however, face much higher rates of diabetes, obesity, HIV infection, asthma, according to the CDC’s report on racial health disparities.

What do we need to do to continue to close these gaps? Tell us why you think they exist and what can be done to end them.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

Leave a comment