‘Death By Zip Code’: Health Disparities Between Rich And Poor Areas Are Only Getting Worse

On Tuesday, a new report revealed that Americans are in “mediocre” health, and the United States has significantly worse health outcomes than other wealthy countries. But in addition to the gap between the U.S. and other developed nations, the new research also documented the widening gulf between different areas of this country — and the increasing reality that health is inextricably linked with wealth.

As NBC News points out, some of the study’s data points to a growing divide between wealthier and poorer areas of the United States. While the people who live in rich areas like San Francisco or the Washington, DC suburbs are likely to be just as healthy as people living in Switzerland or Japan, that’s not true for Americans in more impoverished areas. The health of the people living in Appalachia or the rural South is more comparable to the residents of Algeria or Bangladesh.

The disparities become particularly evident when examining life expectancy across different regions. For example, the men living in Fairfax County, VA — where the median household income is over $100,000 — have a life expectancy of about 82 years. But in neighboring McDowell County, WV, where the median household income is just $39,500, men have a life expectancy of just 63.9 years. That’s the lowest in the country, and similar to the average number of years that people in poorer developing nations live.

NBC’s Chief Medical Editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, said the new report presents “a scathing look at demographics” and called the findings “almost death by zip code.”


Snyderman’s point is illustrated by maps accompanying the report, which chart life expectancy for both men and women across the United States. Women fare a bit worse, but Americans of both genders are more likely to die earlier if they live in the South:

Obamacare hopes to help ease some of those health disparities by giving low-income and rural Americans better access to care. The health law will do that partly by making big investments in community health centers, which provide services to poorer areas of the country that typically lack health resources. On Wednesday, the Obama administration awarded $150 million in grant money to over 1,100 community health centers that will help low-income Americans enroll in Obamacare plans. “Those of us in the Obama administration have been working hard to make sure Americans who’ve been out of the health system finally get in,” Mary Wakefield, the administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration, explained.

The health reform law also hopes to achieve this goal through its optional Medicaid expansion, which would extend health coverage to additional low-income people who don’t currently qualify for the program. But, since many stubborn governors in Southern states have resisted this Obamacare provision — even though their states would likely benefit significantly from it — a large gulf between different regions will likely remain.