Racial Disparities in Life Expectancy Are a Place-Based Problem

New research from the Brookings Institution illuminates the racial disparities of public health outcomes both during and before the pandemic.

Read Time: 2 minutes

January 10, 2022, 7:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


A Black LIves Matter Protest, with a protestor holding up a sign that reads "Open Your Eyes: Systemic Racism Is Real"

William Gottemoller / Shutterstock

An article for the Brookings Institution, written by Andre M. Perry, Carl Romer, and Anthony Barr, digs into the poor life expectancy of Black Americans—public health outcomes connected to environmental injustices in predominantly Black communities.

The first paragraph of the article succinctly summarizes the disparities in the health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic:

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.

The article focuses on social determinants of health at the local level.

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. 

The article proceeds to present two findings from the authors' analysis that highlight "hyperlocal variation in life expectancy" prior to the pandemic. The first finding: "neighborhood life expectancy correlates with neighborhood demographics." The second: "neighborhood life expectancy disparities exist relative to the surrounding metro area."

The source article, linked below, provides more details on those findings, including the methodology for each. The conclusion the authors suggest, after presenting these findings, is critical for planners: "Both findings illuminate the fact that racial gaps in life expectancy manifest as place-based problems." 

Monday, December 20, 2021 in Brookings Institution

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