Racial Life Expectancy Gap Shrinks To Smallest In American History

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

The longstanding life expectancy gap between black and white Americans is steadily decreasing, the New York Times reports. Although middle-aged black Americans still have a higher mortality rate than white Americans, the gap in life expectancy between the two groups is at a historic low. In 1990, the difference in life expectancy between blacks and whites was seven years; by 2014, it dropped to 3.4 years.

According to a new collection of federal data, the rate of suicide for black men decreased between 1999 and 2014, infant mortality rates have been reduced by more than 20 percent since the 1990s, and teenage births have decreased by more than 60 percent since the mid-1990s.

“There has been true progress for blacks,” Sam Harper, an epidemiologist at McGill University, told the Times.

The narrowing gap may be partially due to the opioid epidemic’s disproportionate impact on white Americans. News of the gains come as recent studies report rising mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans, driven in large part by suicide, overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids, and alcoholism-related diseases. A study published in November by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, for instance, found that the death rate for middle-aged white Americans with a high school education or less increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.

“It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” two Dartmouth economists wrote after the study was published.

But the negative health outcomes for white Americans doesn’t account for the entirety of the shrinking racial life expectancy gap. In fact, the overall health of black Americans has made significant progress in recent years. As the Times points out, the health status of black Americans has long been governed by inequality. At the beginning of the 1900s, thanks to a combination of discrimination, segregation, poor living conditions, and lack of access to medical care, the life expectancy for black Americans was almost 15 years less for blacks than it was than for whites. Although life expectancy for black Americans did improve in the 1970s as access to health care became more widespread and smoking rates steadily decreased, deaths from the crack epidemic, AIDS, and homicides pushed overall life expectancy for black Americans back down in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Now, researchers point to declining rates of homicides and violence: the homicide death rate for black Americans decreased by 40 percent between 1995 and 2013.

“Blacks are catching up,” Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times. “The gap is now the narrowest it has been since the beginning of the 20th century, and that’s really good news.”