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A new study examines Black life expectancy and well-being in the U.S.


Even if you don't follow health news or stories with a lot of numbers, this is one that might have stuck. Life expectancy in the United States overall is at its lowest since 1996 - down to 76.1 years. Now, that's largely due to the COVID pandemic. But that number, a measure of longevity, doesn't tell the whole story. But in combination with other information, it can offer meaningful information - information that can help improve the quality of life. Last week, the Brookings Institution, in partnership with the NAACP, released the Black Progress Index, a new study looking at Black life expectancy and along with other information about Black well-being. We called Andre M. Perry to tell us more about it. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Andre Perry, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANDRE M PERRY: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So, so often, when we talk about African Americans, about the Black community, the data points to problems - you know, gun violence or poverty or health disparities. The fact is that Black life expectancy is lower than the life expectancy of our white counterparts. The data tends to point out what's wrong. So what's different about this research?

PERRY: Yes. Oftentimes when we're talking about Black communities, we're talking about the problems in Black communities. We talk about how poorly we perform in comparison to white people. But a lot of those numbers are in the aggregate. But when you do a closer look at how we're doing in specific places, you'll see that life expectancy is much higher in a lot of places. And with the Black Progress Index, what we do is examine the social factors that influence Black well-being.

And what we've found is some pretty interesting predictors of life expectancy that point to the diversity of our experience across the United States. Some places are doing very well in terms of life expectancy. However, some areas it's below 70. But we need to start looking for how we're doing well so that we can learn from those places to say, hey, what are you doing in Montgomery County, for instance, where life expectancy is over 80, homeownership rates are good? What's going on there? So maybe we can borrow from those ideas and use them in other places where they're not doing as well.

MARTIN: So why don't we just point out some of the interesting numbers that jumped out in terms of where Black people are living the longest? Living the longest is sort of one indicator of how well they're doing overall. You pointed out, well, Montgomery County, Md., which is in the Washington, D.C., metro area. I don't think - that might not shock people - you know, stable employment going back generations, you know, opportunities to generate and hold on to intergenerational wealth, access to health care, things of that sort. But there are some places that I think might surprise people. Like, there - for example, there's a county in New Hampshire. There is a county in Maine.

PERRY: That's right.

MARTIN: There's a county in Minnesota. There's a county in Indiana. What's your theory about what's going on in these places?

PERRY: Yes. One of the most surprising findings about what predicts for higher life expectancy is the percent of Black adults who are foreign-born Black immigrants. And why that's fascinating - we know that Black immigrants oftentimes bring higher levels of wealth and may be healthier and they may actually land in places that are healthier. But what is also true is that less exposure to racism seem to matter. So it's just a fascinating finding. And a lot of other predictors are not so eye-popping. So we know that income is a great predictor, homeownership rates, K-12 schooling in terms of numeracy and mathematics.

But another thing that was fascinating to find was the distance from your Facebook friends. If you live in the areas where the spatial distance is longer, which points to - you have a broader social network, it predicts for higher life expectancy. And so in those places where you see some of these social factors being played out or performing high on these social factors, you're seeing a higher life expectancy.

MARTIN: That's fascinating 'cause honestly, I would have expected the opposite. I would have thought, oh, you're farther away from your Facebook friends. You don't have a tight-knit network. But you're saying it actually - in the data, it shows the opposite.

PERRY: Yeah. Another controversial finding was religiosity was a negative predictor for life expectancy. And we know that the data show that people who attend church more often are more likely to be obese. But we learned a lot about the pandemic and the rejection of what many would perceive as healthy behaviors or - in terms of vaccination. And we know anecdotally - I mean, I have family members who would readily say it's in God's hands or we're going to give it up - all up to God. Now...

MARTIN: Well, I mean, again, that stands out in part because I think, anecdotally, people might think that religious adherence would be a factor in promoting longevity because it - again, community. You have community. You have people who are connected. They're looking after you. You're doing stuff together.

PERRY: Being affiliated with the community is a good thing. These are correlates, so we can't say that these are causal factors. People going to church isn't causing lower life expectancy. What it may suggest is that people who go to church might be suffering more in ways that we didn't pick up in the indicators, that racism may draw people to church, that they're seeking hope. And so we need to understand what's behind these indicators - what are the social conditions behind these indicators? - and find solutions that animate the positive and sort of mitigate the negative.

MARTIN: Well, but one thing that does honestly stand out is looking at the map, is that - the very vast gulf in Black life expectancy across the United States, the fact that there is so much variation because I think so many people are so used to thinking about the Black community as a monolith, you know, for all kinds of reasons. To see that there is such wide variation regionally really stands out.

PERRY: What we see all across the country is that people have agency. They're actually making changes in their community, and it's showing up in life expectancy. But when you look at life expectancy in the aggregate, always comparing it to white people, you miss the diversity of those places that are winning, that are actually taking charge in spite of that constant - of racism that is a pall across the country. The point of this whole exercise is to learn from the people and the places that are making a positive impact on their lives and the lives of others.

MARTIN: Andre M. Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He's written a guide to the data in the Black Progress Index. That's a joint publication from the Brookings Institution and the NAACP. Andre Perry, thanks so much for talking to us about this. I do hope we'll talk again.

PERRY: Hey, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.