Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It explores how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report. The report is an annual publication of Bread for the World Institute.
By Derek Schwabe
The gap in life expectancy between black and white Americans is the smallest ever, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an encouraging sign of progress in rolling back health inequalities based on race – inequalities that have persisted throughout U.S. history.
The causes of the narrowing gap are complicated, but researchers point to real, substantial health advances among African-Americans, as well as some mild setbacks for white Americans. The most noticeable drivers of rising black life expectancy include steadily declining suicide rates among black men (the only U.S. population group whose suicide rate fell this year), a halving of the number of black HIV/AIDS diagnoses since 1990, a 20 percent drop in infant mortality among black infants, and a 64 percent reduction in teenage pregnancy since 1995. African-American babies born this year can expect to live 6.5 years longer than those born in 1990.
The increase in life expectancy among whites over the same time period was 2.9 years – which explains why the gap between African-Americans and whites shrank. Life expectancy was actually slightly lower for whites this year than last year – 1.2 months lower.
Studies point to a recent surge of mental health and related suicide and substance abuse issues among whites, particularly alcoholic liver disease, and heroin and prescription opioid overdoses. Experts view these trends as clear signs of growing distress in the population, which may be linked to increased economic insecurity brought on by deteriorating wages and rising income and wealth inequality.
Although suicide is on the rise in nearly every demographic group, the good news is that the homicide rate has been steadily declining since the 1990s. The number of African-American homicide victims decreased most dramatically — by 40 percent since 1995.
While this good news marks real improvements, particularly for children who are now growing up in safer communities, it has been accompanied by a staggering rise in the U.S. prison population, the majority of which is comprised of people of color. Despite being just 30 percent of the U.S. population, people of color now account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. While an African American baby born in 2016 is more likely to live longer than those of previous generations, he or she is also more than three times as likely to be incarcerated at some point in his or her life.
Studies show that a prison record cuts wages for workers by 11 percent, cuts annual employment by nine weeks, and reduces yearly earnings by 40 percent. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to fall into poverty when a parent is incarcerated due to a loss of income.
African-Americans are living six to seven years longer than they were a generation ago—that’s an unmistakable gain that’s well worth celebrating. Safer communities and expanded health care access have made a difference. But a longer life is not necessarily a healthier life. Good health requires earning enough money to live on – which stagnant wages and a poor recovery from the Great Recession have put out of the reach of many. If we want to continue making progress on life expectancy and health, we need to confront the underlying causes of preventable death and health problems. We can do this by raising wages, continuing to expand health insurance access, strengthening the fraying safety net, and making meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system.
Read the 2016 Hunger Report to learn more about the linkages between health, hunger, and inequality, and policy changes that can alleviate all three.
Derek Schwabe is a research associate in Bread for the World Institute.