Poverty in Philadelphia is literally killing people. A new study released this week shows that the life span for those doing financially well is decades longer than those who are struggling. The life expectancy at birth of Philadelphians ranges from 64 years to 87 years depending on neighborhood — a 23-year disparity.
The Associated Press published data from the National Center for Health Statistics about the life expectancy at birth of nearly 66,000 census tracts nationwide. The project, which was done with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, maps the data and crosses it with demographic and socioeconomic data for a dimensional picture of the region.
The results show that failure to increase wages, create jobs, and provide universal access to education and health insurance is dramatically shortening the lives of poor people in Philadelphia — many of whom are black and brown.
For example, the life expectancy at birth in Strawberry Mansion is 64 years. Those living in Fairmount/ Spring Garden can expect to see 87. Those born in the nearby Lower Merion area are likely to have a 92nd birthday.
There is nothing magical about the air in Lower Merion or in Fairmount that allows for a longer life than in Strawberry Mansion. In the former census tracts, median incomes are higher, more adults have a high school diploma, the vast majority of people have health insurance, and unemployment is low. (It will also come as no surprise that these areas are predominantly white.)
Even within census tracts, education, income, and unemployment matters tremendously. In one tract, an increase of $10,000 in annual income translates to more than another half-year of life. Making the unemployment in Strawberry Mansion (15 percent) closer to the unemployment in Lower Merion (5 percent) would increase the life expectancy at birth by more than a year-and-a-half. Cutting in half the percent of adults that did not graduate from high school would add about another year.
The biggest takeaway from the data is that economic policy and education policy are inherently health policy. Sometimes a job, high school diploma, or raise is the prescription the doctor ordered. If we want to invest in health, we must create jobs, increase wages, ensure access to education, and allow mobility for people to choose where to live.
The study also illuminates the importance of health insurance. Less than 3 percent of the adult population in Lower Merion are uninsured, compared to 16 percent in Strawberry Mansion. It’s almost too obvious to state, but health insurance is critical for health — and for financial stability by avoiding unexpected debt. That reality makes the actions of the federal judge who struck down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety equivalent to handing death sentences for many. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been in the legal trenches fighting threats to the ACA, which is exactly what Pennsylvanians sent him to Harrisburg to do.
Poverty is the biggest public health threat to our city. Knowing that it sentences people to early deaths offers even more compelling reason to address it.