I want to thank Nathan Newman for pointing out an article on an issue close to my heart: inequality. Ever since reading Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom, I’ve thought a lot about his argument that even though the poor in rich countries have more money and goods than many people in the developing world, the greater inequality in our society means that they are often worse off. To support his argument he draws on statistics which show African American men as having lower life expectancies than men in developing countries who have better access to medical care. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to blog much about it for lack of a good article available online which succinctly makes Sen’s point — until now. Thanks to Nathan Newman, I found this:
In a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, University of Michigan researchers found that African-American females living to age 15 in Harlem had a 65% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as women in India. Meanwhile, Harlem’s African-American males had only a 37% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as men in Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among both African-American men and women, infectious diseases and diseases of the circulatory system were the prime causes of high mortality.
It takes more income to achieve a given life expectancy in a rich country like the United States than it does to achieve the same life expectancy in a less affluent country. So the higher money income of a low-income person in the United States, compared to a middle-income person in a poor country, does not necessarily translate into a longer life span. The average income per person in African-American families, for example, is more than five times the per capita income of E1 Salvador. The life expectancy for African-American men in the United States, however, is only about 67 years, the same as the average life expectancy for men in E1 Salvador.
And it is important to note that differences in life expectancy are not due entirely to access to health care, but also due to:
… environmental and occupational hazards; communicable diseases; homicide and firearm-related injuries; and smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, and other risk factors. These dangers all tend to affect lower-income people more than higher-income, less-educated people more than more-educated, and people of color more than whites. African-American children are more than twice as likely as white children to be hospitalized for asthma, which is linked to air pollution. Poor men are nearly six times as likely as high-income men to have elevated blood-lead levels, which reflect both residential and workplace environmental hazards. African-American men are more than seven times as likely to fall victim to homicide as white men; African-American women, more than four times as likely as white women. The less education someone has, the more likely they are to smoke or to drink heavily. The lower someone’s income, the less likely they are to get regular exercise.
And it is important not to discount the importance of racism:
Even after accounting for differences in income, education, and other factors, the life expectancy for African Americans is less than that for whites. U.S. researchers are beginning to explore the relationship between high blood pressure among African Americans and the racism of the surrounding society. African Americans tend to suffer from high blood pressure, a risk factor for circulatory disease, more often than whites.
But what is really depressing, is that even by basic income measures inequality is increasing.