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Wisconsin is the Only State Where Black and White Women's Life Expectancy Gap Grew

Rick Gershon/Getty Images

There was discouraging news this week about the health of Wisconsin’s black residents, especially women.

The journal Health Affairs published a report about life expectancy and the gap between black and white Americans. Wisconsin was the only state to see the gap widen between from 1990-2009.

The disparity between black and white women grew by more than 1.5 years, while there was a slight uptick among men.

Geoffrey Swain doesn’t mince words, when referring to the new life expectancy numbers.

"If you want to be healthy as a black person, you do not want to live in Wisconsin," Swain says.

Swain is medical director for the City of Milwaukee Health Department and a professor in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

He says the analysis painting Wisconsin as the only state with a growing gap between blacks and whites is yet another illustration of the challenges many black people here face, such as “poverty, unemployment, chronic stress and low educational attainment.”

According to Swain, social and economic circumstances exert a powerful impact on health and longevity.

The study did not cite reasons for life expectancy changes, but it follows a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It ranked Wisconsin last, when it comes to the well-being of minority children. Professor and founding dean of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Public Health Magda Peck wants the numbers to poke leaders and residents.

“I’m hoping that this will cause greater curiosity, greater urgency, greater collaboration and a greater sense that we must work better together to translate these data into action,” Peck says.

Peck says action could include exploring how certain factors contribute to the poor health and shorter lifespan of black women.

“We may want to ask questions about toxic stress in women’s lives, with the underlying issues of income and joblessness and poverty and being single parents and having a life that’s truly more difficult,” Peck says.

Peck says if researchers can demonstrate cause and effect, then they could recommend ways for improving life expectancy. But Clarene Mitchell says Wisconsin doesn’t need all the answers, before making changes. Mitchell is director of communication and collaboration for the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

She says women’s health outcomes improve when they see a doctor regularly, so finding insurance and a physician nearby may be crucial first steps. Mitchell says, it might also help, if clinics offer culturally appropriate care.

“You need to be going through a door that’s receptive to you as a person of color, in a way that’s welcoming, having people that look like you being able to serve you, having people that are respectful of you and your background, your unique and individual circumstances,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell says everyone here has a stake in the well-being and life expectancy of African Americans.

“When we, as a black community, are not able to have good health outcomes then we’re not able to, on a children’s level, go to school and function properly and get the education," Mitchell says. "On the adult level, (we’re not) able to go to work and perform as needed, which helps to move and drive this whole economy and community as a whole."

The researchers who published the life expectancy gaps between black and white Americans urge follow-up steps. They include “intense scrutiny of states that have remarkable patterns of change.” Wisconsin is included, for its widening gap.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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