Life Expectancy in America: Part I

By on March 21, 2011 in War on the Poor


The War on the Poor, African Americans and the Middle Class)

Every time I hear the phrase American Exceptionalism, I cringe.  True, the USA is exceptional in many ways.   Certainly, it is the most powerful nation, and certainly it is very wealthy.   But it’s not all exceptional – at least in a positive way.  Given that we are so rich and powerful, it is surprising how poorly we perform in many aspects of quality of life.  Consider life expectancy.  We are the longest lived society on earth – right.   Wrong!  And while the USA ranks way down on the list of developed nations , its African American population ranks among countries of the 3rd world.

The overall US life expectancy in 2007 was 77.9 years; whites had a life expectancy of 78.4 – blacks 73.6. Disparities are most extreme between the males of the two races – (75.9 to 70.0). The life expectancy of a man born in 2004 was 75.2 years – ten years longer than in 1950. Although both white and black males made similar gains, black males continue to have a six-year shorter life expectancy than their white counterparts (70 to 75.9 years). Although females made similar life expectancy gains since 1950 (9 years), the life expectancy gap between white and black females is smaller than their male counterparts (80.8 to 76.8).  These data suggest some gains have taken place in our society – we are all living longer as are black, white, male, and female subpopulations. In spite of this, there is obviously much work to be done. The African American population lags behind its white peers and black males have a life expectancy over 8 years less than average.  

But so what – it might be argued that life is good in the US – differences within the population as a given, all of us do better than elsewhere.  This American Exceptionalist argument could be made only if one completely disregards data. The 2011 CIA estimate of US life expectancy is 78.73 years. This places the US 50th among 223 political entities. The US lags behind all major developed states – people in Japan, Australia, Italy, and Canada live over 3 years longer – in France, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand, 2 to 3 years longer – in Norway, Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece, Austria, Netherlands, Luxemburg, Belgium between 1 to 2 years longer – and in Finland, Denmark, and Portugal between 0 and 1 year longer. Taiwan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Panama, Costa Rica, Chile, Cuba, Libya, The British Virgin Islands, and Albania have life expectancies that are within one year of that in the USA. 

United Nations estimates (2005 – 2010) bear out the above CIA findings.  They indicate that the overall US life expectancy is 78.3 years – 36th out of 193 nations (tied with Cuba and Denmark), lower than all developed countries except Portugal (78.1 years), but also lower than Cyprus (79), Costa Rica (78.8), Puerto Rico (78.7), and Chile (78.6). 

Although the US rank in life expectancy varies among the different data sources and by year it would be difficult to make the case that we are moving up. Instead we are falling further down the list. For example, in a 1980 we were 19th out of 186 nations and had a life expectancy only 2.8 years behind the leader, Japan.

But if the US performs poorly in general, when race is considered, the country’s performance is dismal. When US whites (78.4 years) are considered alone, they pass only 2 nations (Cuba and Denmark) and rank 34th US African American  at 73.6 years rank 75th – behind such notables as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and many Latin American countries. Black males tie for 115th.

It would be incorrect to paint race with a broad, stereotypic  brush – there are rich and poor, healthy and ill, and long or short lived among both black and white.  It would also be naive to assume that the differences above can be laid at the feet of overt racism plan and simple.  Many other factors such as life style, education, income (which shall be considered next in this series) contribute to how long people live.  However, certainly, many of these factors reflect the residual affects of past racism – it is more likely that an African American is poor than a white, more likely that he or she will be without health care.

At any rate – where’s the class war? It’s an easy question to answer.  We are the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and yet, large-easily identified portions of our country live in the third world, and even the majority population does not live as long as the average citizen of 34 nations.   This presents an interesting slant on the smug notion of American Exceptionalism. One way we”re exceptional it is in that we can’t keep our population alive as long as other wealthy countries even though we are the most wealthy of the lot.  We should be ashamed.

From the Abyss,







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