As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in America, the gap between the healthy and the unwell also widens. Several weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released data showing that life expectancy for the most affluent group of Americans exceeds that for the poorest Americans by nearly 4.5 years or 6% on average.
- Health gains for the poor are decades behind those for the wealthiest Americans, whose life expectancy in 1980 was higher than that of the most impoverished in 2000.
- In 1980-82, the most affluent could expect to live almost 3 years longer than people in the most deprived, (75.8 versus 73 years). By 1998-2000, the difference in life expectancy had increased to 4.5 years (79.2 versus 74.7 years) and continues to grow.
- Add race into the mix and you find the mortality gap between blacks and whites widens.
While the researchers don’t entirely agree on the causes of this phenomenon they do cite the possibilities that economically disadvantaged Americans face higher rates of smoking and stress, worse diet and access to care, less education and access to health information, and racial bias even when insured.
The Robert Wood Johnson has recently launched the non-partisan Commission to Build a Healthier America, which will look outside the health care system at how factors like education, environment, income and housing influence health care behaviors in order to recommend evidence-based strategies to improve the health of all Americans. They have issued a similar report finding that the inequities in the health of the wealthy and the less so relate to a number of factors:
- The poorest men die 8 years sooner than the richest men; the poorest women die nearly 7 years sooner than the richest women.
- Nearly 1 in 3 low-income people have chronic illness, compared with 1 in 10 adults in the highest income category.
- Poor adults are nearly 5 times as likely to be in poor or fair health compared with the highest-income adults.
- Adults who have not finished high school are more than 4 times as likely to be in poor or fair health.
- Higher rates of death due to heart disease are often seen in areas where fewer adults have college educations.
- Poor education leads to low-paying jobs, which leads to all the stress that comes from not having enough money, not having decent housing, and not being able to afford healthy food or the time to exercise.
- Although blacks and Hispanics have higher rates of poverty and are on average less educated and therefore less healthy, there are large numbers of economically disadvantaged people in every racial or ethnic group – including whites, who make up nearly half of poor Americans.
On the heels of these findings, a new PBS special “Unnatural Causes” is also exploring “why some of us get sicker more often and die sooner and what causes us to fall ill in the first place.” The television series consists of 4 parts:
- : Tries to make sense of how poverty and race can literally make us sick by an in depth look at the lives of 4 Kentucky residents: a CEO, lab supervisor, janitor and unemployed mother.
- : Today is the 40th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death and yet infant mortality rates among African Americans remain more than twice as high as among white Americans. This segment explores why that is and what can be done about it.: Explores the Latino “paradox” – why Recent Mexican immigrants tend to be healthier than average wealthier Americans, and why they lose that advantage the longer they live here.
- : When an Arizona Indian reservation lost authority over the area’s river, a string of calamities ensued resulting in poverty and the highest Type 2 Diabetes rates in the world. Having since regained their water rights the tribes now hope to regain their health and wellbeing.
: An African-American ghetto in Richmond, California is a landing place for Latino and Southeast Asians who are now facing the same dire health and quality of life deficits. Comparatively, a Seattle, Washington neighborhood is taking advantage of Federal programs to improve their mixed-income community.
- : U.S. nuclear testing had a devastating impact on the South Pacific Marshall Islands, whose residents have now relocated to Arkansas, bringing poverty and poor health with them.
: How the outsourcing of U.S. jobs and economic downturns worsen health in the effected communities and how Sweden has us beat in this regard.
For local showtimes, go here: http://www.pbs.org/unnaturalcauses/local_listings.htm