There’s an odd demographic health issue currently plaguing America. Poor white women who haven’t completed high school have seen a significant reduction in their life expectancy.
According to an article in the American Prospect by Monica Potts titled “What’s Killing Poor White Women“:
These women can now expect to die five years earlier than the generation before them. It is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine. Throughout history, technological and scientific innovation have put death off longer and longer, but the benefits of those advances have not been shared equally, especially across the race and class divides that characterize 21st–century America. Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages, and healthy food isn’t just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It’s killing them.
The journal Health Affairs reported the five-year drop last August. The article’s lead author, Jay Olshansky, who studies human longevity at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a team of researchers looked at death rates for different groups from 1990 to 2008. White men without high-school diplomas had lost three years of life expectancy, but it was the decline for women like Crystal that made the study news. Previous studies had shown that the least-educated whites began dying younger in the 2000s, but only by about a year. Olshansky and his colleagues did something the other studies hadn’t: They isolated high-school dropouts and measured their outcomes instead of lumping them in with high-school graduates who did not go to college.
The last time researchers found a change of this magnitude, Russian men had lost seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began drinking more and taking on other risky behaviors.
The article focuses on the death of a 38-year-old diabetic in Arkansas, but notes that she was part of a growing segment of the population who have to deal with poverty, inadequate health care and a lack of education: Factors, when combined, are significantly shortening the lifespan of this specific group of Americans. And the region of the country they live in is a factor:
The researchers colored the counties with an increase in female mortality a bright red, and the red splashed over Appalachia, down through Kentucky and Tennessee, north of the Cotton Belt, and across the Ozarks—the parts of the South where poor white people live. Location seemed to matter more than other indicators, like drug use, which has been waning. The Wisconsin researchers recommended more studies examining “cultural, political, or religious factors.”
Something less tangible, it seems, is shaping the lives of white women in the South, beyond what science can measure. Surely these forces weigh on black women, too, but perhaps they are more likely to have stronger networks of other women. Perhaps after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, black women are more likely to feel like they’re on an upward trajectory. Perhaps they have more control relative to the men in their communities. In low-income white communities of the South, it is still women who are responsible for the home and for raising children, but increasingly they are also raising their husbands. A husband is a burden and an occasional heartache rather than a helpmate, but one women are told they cannot do without. More and more, data show that poor women are working the hardest and earning the most in their families but can’t take the credit for being the breadwinners. Women do the emotional work for their families, while men reap the most benefits from marriage. The rural South is a place that often wants to remain unchanged from the 1950s and 1960s, and its women are now dying as if they lived in that era, too.
This isn’t something that’s just been discovered, though. In June 2011, I posted an item on the shift in life expectancy among American women that included this map:
But at the time, the report didn’t specify that the trend specifically involved uneducated poor white females.
Part obituary and part medical journal, the American Prospect article digs deep into the problem facing poor people in rural America. It’s a fascinating read.