Mortality Rates Among Blacks and Whites Stagnant Throughout Twentieth Century

Despite a number of improvements in health care and social acceptance, a recent study has found that the mortality and longevity rates between blacks and whites is similar to what it was 100 years ago.

Gathering Data

This study, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, first sampled black and white veterans of the Civil War, matching pension records with census data. By the end of the Civil War, around 186,000 blacks had entered the military, which represented about 75% of eligible blacks living in the Union. By the 1900's, black veterans typically had a higher standard of living and occupational history than non veterans.

The reason this particular time period was chosen, specifically after 1900, was that it was during this time that the US Pension program was extended to include not only veterans disabled during the war, but also those who suffered non-related disabilities. By 1907, old age was classified as a disability, so this provided a great deal of data on the health of veterans, both black and white, during the early twentieth century.

Also, in addition to the expansion of the pension program during the beginning of the twentieth century, the official US Census was expanded during this time period, matching census information, such as occupation, home ownership, and martial status, to Medical Certificates.

By 1900, approximately 17,000 white veterans had applied for a pension, in comparison to around 5500 blacks.

The second data set, which was used for comparison, was gathered from Heath and Retirement Studies which began in 1992 and extended to 2006. While the studies included those from many different races, only blacks and whites where chosen to provide a basis of comparison. Similar to the data from the beginning of the twentieth century, this data also included information such as marital status and homeownership.

What was Found

The data was carefully analyzed, both looking at is as a whole and then subsequently adjusting the information to include things like occupational hazards, literacy, age, and marital status. In the case of the first data set, this information was collected by comparing veterans records to census data, so it was not always complete.

It was found that by 1914, about 54% of blacks and 45% of whites had died, with blacks having an average age of around 70.5 years and whites 71 years.

Without adjusting the data to include occupation and other factors, blacks were found to be about 26% more likely to die than whites. When this data was adjusted to include other factors, this figure dropped to about 23%.

In comparison, the data collected in the end of the 20th century it was found that blacks were about 25% more likely to die than whites, but once adjusted for other factors, this figure dropped to about 18%.

So, despite a number of improvements, including a number of laws intended to improve equality, there is still a significant disparity between the life expectancy of a white person in comparison to a black person.

Interestingly, Homeownership was found to increase life expectancy among both blacks and whites.

Source: American Journal of Public Health; Feb2010, Vol. 100 Issue 2, p357-363, 7p

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