Friday, December 17, 2010

Income and Life Expectancy. What does it Tell Us About US?

Statistician Hans Rosling, in a BBC documentary called The Joy of Stats, presents a neat 3-D graph presented below about how life expectancy in wealthy countries has improved over the last 200 years from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte to the present while poorer countries continue to lag behind. You can see in the clip below how the countries in the world look like a swarm of ants crawling towards a puddle of sugar water.

Rosling points out interesting sub-trends in different countries such as China, the fastest growing economy on earth, where it's richer provinces such as Shanghai resemble Europe in life expectancy now while it's poorer ones still resemble the third world. He mentions the richest country on earth in gross domestic product, the United States of America which was number one in the world right after World War II per capita (adjusted for population, the USA now ranks 9th in the world in per capita GDP. Luxembourg is first).

The United States with it's wealth is currently tied with Cuba (ranked 87th in per capita gross domestic product according to the CIA factbook) at 36th in the world in life expectancy according to the United Nations (Japan is first). In a previous post I discussed a study where there were an estimated 45,000 excess annual deaths in the US due to a lack of health insurance even after adjusting for other risk factors such as smoking and poverty. Can this be the only reason for the US's poor showing in life expectancy?

One of the risk factors that was adjusted for in the study on the uninsured is poverty which has been on the rise in this country, even before the economic collapse of 2008, and is correlated with the number of uninsured here. The poor are more likely to fight in our wars now that our armed forces are all volunteer and they are wooed with incentives like free health care and the GI bill.

Breaking down the life expectancy by state in 2005 it is the poorer ones such as Mississippi which tend to have lower life expectancies with one outlier, the District of Columbia with a highest per capita income at $61,092 but the lowest life expectancy at 73.8 years of any state in 2007 according to the Census Bureau. Doing a statistical test of this relationship, there is a positive correlation between income and life expectancy that is borderline significant that only accounts for 8% of the variance.
When the data is reanalyzed with the District of Columbia excluded because technically it is a city and not a state and it is an outlier, the relationship looks a lot stronger with a more highly significant correlation accounting for 31% of the variance.

The question remains why was DC such an extreme outlier in this data. There are obviously areas of high income but also areas of extreme poverty in DC with high crime rates. Also many wealthier residents may be better able to move out of the district to the Virginia suburban counties which have the highest income levels in the US.

The gap between rich and poor here in the US has gotten wider in the last 30 years. President Obama's compromise with Senate Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts on everyone including the rich has been passed. Raising the income tax rates on the highest earners from 36% to 39% would have been a timid increase but would have helped (it's a lot higher in other countries). Republicans would have held up all legislation to get this passed. They did hold up a health care bill for 9/11 (which would have been unnecessary if the US had comprehensive universal health coverage) first responders who were exposed to hazardous materials. Jon Stewart gave a good review of it's impact on real people and how the media covers it.


After considerable prodding, the US Senate did finally pass the 9/11 responder bill but many health care and income disparities remain in DC and the rest of the US. Marian Wright Edelman has a good review of what these statistics mean for people and children in the US' poorest state and next to lowest in life expectancy, Mississippi. This article is about children receiving assistance from a foundation in the Netherlands. Some more food for thought as the holidays near.

Foreign Aid for Mississippi's Children

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Teapartiers sandbagged by health insurers | MollyRush's Blog and a calculation mortality rates for lack of insurance.