Why is life expectancy so low in Black neighborhoods? – Brookings Institution – DC Initiative on Racial Equity
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Earlier this year, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) published data showing a 1.5-year decline in national life expectancy in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the lives of approximately 375,000 Americans that year. The NCHS reported that white Americans’ life expectancy declined by 1.2 years; for Black Americans, that number was 2.9 years.

This racial disparity in life expectancy is a lagging indicator of disparities that have existed throughout the pandemic. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Black people are 1.1 times more likely than white people to contract COVID-19; 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus; and two times more likely to die from it. These disparities help to explain why, when adjusting for age, Black people account for 22.1% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths despite only comprising 12.8% of the population.

The causes of these racial disparities are hotly debated, and many fixate on the role of individual behavior—for example, a recent Brookings analysis cited vaccine hesitancy as a key driver of disparate death rates. But while personal behavior matters, social determinants of health at the local level play an outsized role. Because de jure and de facto segregation concentrated Black Americans in specific locales, racial injustices have occurred through place-based discrimination: disproportionate exposure to pollution and hazardous waste, harmful zoning practices, and post-disaster displacement, to name a few. Rather than blaming Black people for their suffering, the conditions of place must be examined to understand the mechanics of racial discrimination that contribute to that suffering.

Two findings highlight hyperlocal variation in life expectancy prior to the pandemic

Finding #1: Neighborhood life expectancy correlates with neighborhood demographics

We compared life expectancy across neighborhoods where the population of Black residents ranged from less than 1% to ov


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