State-Level Variations in Racial Disparities in Life Expectancy

Disparities in life expectancy between Blacks and Whites vary significantly among states and arise from different underlying patterns, suggesting policy-makers should consider disparity data and its implications carefully, according to this study of state-based information.

Knowing Blacks have shorter lives than Whites in the U.S. and that the disparity varies regionally, policy-makers have generally targeted the reduction of disparity in the geographic areas with the greatest magnitudes of disparity. But researchers here consider whether policy-makers should also consider the absolute life expectancies of both Blacks and Whites and total population size. Researchers examined data from Census 2000 and state death certificates from 1997 through 2004 for all 50 states, eventually excluding 11 states due to the small size of the Black populations.

Key Findings:

  • The magnitudes of disparity between Blacks and Whites in states arose from different patterns of life expectancy and population size.
  • In states with smaller than average disparities, the narrowed gaps arise from two different patterns, Blacks living longer than average lives or Whites living shorter than average lives. In states with larger than average disparities, Blacks are generally living shorter than average, while Whites are living longer than average.
  • States with the largest black populations had the greatest impact on national disparity measures, giving rise to disproportionate impacts of small disparities. For example, New York has a relatively small disparity between Blacks and Whites, but eliminating this gap would have a comparatively big impact on national disparity.

While researchers did not model the impact of Medicaid coverage, they note several provocative observations linking adult Medicaid coverage to life expectancy. This study suggests local and national policy-makers need to consider the patterns and context revealed by state data when setting goals and funding priorities regarding life expectancy.