Want to Live Longer? Move to Lancaster.
They say this city can kill you. Well now we have proof.
The Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America project has released a report called “Geographies of Opportunity: Ranking Well-Being by Congressional District” in which they measure health, access to knowledge and living standards within the country’s 435 congressional districts as well as Washington, D.C. Only a few states get called out for special notice, and wouldn’t you know it, Pennsylvania is one of them.
There’s a special section called “A Tale of Two Districts: Life Expectancy in Pennsylvania.” The reason the state gets special attention is because it’s an outlier in terms of the health metric, and not in a good way. “Only four districts outside the South have life expectancies of less than 76 years,” the report reads, and one of those is Pennsylvania Congressional District 2, shown at left, which covers much of West Philly, and other surrounding neighborhoods. The average life expectancy in this district is 75.6 years, to be precise, which is several years below the national average.
Meanwhile, residents of the much more rural Pennsylvania Congressional District 16 can expect to live till 80.5, which is longer than the national average.
The study’s authors note some similarities between the two areas:
• Both have roughly 712,000 residents
Both have roughly the same number of young and old residents
• Typical earnings in both are nearly the same (about $30,000)
• The same percentage of residents lack health insurance (about 13 percent)
So what’s the main difference? Demographics, and the way those demographics affect life expectancy. From the study:
In one demographic area that has important consequences for health, the data diverge significantly: in District 2, African Americans make up 58 percent of the population, ten times the share in District 16. District 16 is 73 percent white, and District 2 is 30 percent white. In addition, much of District 2’s white population is concentrated in a few areas, such as the slice of the suburban Main Line that falls within the district boundaries, and the majority of the African American population in District 2 lives in predominantly African American neighborhoods in Philadelphia proper.
This matters because, tragically, average national life expectancy for white people exceeds that of African-Americans by 3.5 years. This is due to a variety of factors, including higher death rates from cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Also, the study notes,
High blood pressure is a particular challenge for African Americans. Blood pressure is heavily affected by social class, poverty, and the degree to which one has autonomy to shape one’s life course.
African Americans are disproportionately poor, which contributes to chronic stress that damages blood vessels and makes health-harming behaviors like smoking more likely.
Moreover, African Americans of all income levels are more likely than other Americans to experience discrimination in ways large and small, likewise a cause of health-harming stress.
The study also mentions challenges that are particular to African American men, who are outlived by African American women by more than half a decade, in part due to death from homicide. The study authors note that in 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department “reported 51 murders of whites (21 percent of all murders) and 191 murders of African Americans (77 percent of all murders). Over 90 percent of murder victims were male, and well over half were ages 18 to 34.21.” They go on to say, “Pennsylvania District 2 does not encompass the entire city of Philadelphia, of course, but it includes many hard-hit neighborhoods. These tragic deaths are the antithesis of human development and an urgent priority for city leaders.”
In their overall analysis, the study’s authors point to four factors—”The Fatal Four—that contribute to early death: smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and drinking to excess. But “for some populations, death by firearm is a ‘fatal fifth,’ and completely preventable, contributor to premature death. Of the twenty bottom-ranking health districts, thirteen are in the ten states with the highest rates of gun deaths. The problem is most serious for African Americans, who die by firearms at twice the rate of whites in the country as a whole.”