It doesn’t take a scientific study for people who are poor to know that their lives are very, very difficult. Now a study shows that being less educated, which usually equates to being poorer, is actually severely shortening the life span of millions of people in the United States. And the gap is widening. The study, entitled “Differences in Life Expectancy Due to Race and Educational Differences Are Widening, and Many May Not Catch Up,” was published in the August issue of the journal Health Affairs.
The study shows that both race and education contribute to a wide disparity in life expectancy.
Other studies done in the past have shown that racism against African Americans shortened their lives. This is still very much the case, and the disparity between white and Black longevity continues, regardless of education or income levels.
However, the new study finds that from 1990 to 2008 an actual decline in life expectancy occurred among white women and men who did not complete high school — in other words, poorer working-class whites, many of whom live a precarious existence.
African Americans with similar educational backgrounds showed some improvement in their life spans over the same period. However, that still left them living fewer years than whites.
At the high end of the educational spectrum, both whites and African Americans with four or more years of college could look forward to living longer. The authors concluded, “Disparities at the educational extremes are astonishingly large, and growing larger.”
They found that “in 2008 white males with 16+ years of education now live 14.2 years longer than black men with less than 12 years of education. The difference is 10.3 years for women. These trends in disparities at the educational extremes are widening. In 1990 the most educated men and women lived 13.4 years and 7.7 years longer, respectively, than the least educated.”
The most shocking finding of this study is the speed at which this gap has widened. For example, “[I]n 1990 the gap in life expectancy between the most and least educated white females was 1.9 years; now it’s 10.4 years.”
Multiplying the wealth gap
A study of this kind does not give reasons why less-educated people are dying sooner, and undoubtedly there are many factors. It is up to those in the struggle against class and national oppression to fill in the blanks.
One of the most obvious objective reasons is that the United States has neither universal free higher education nor universal free health care. Socialist countries like the Soviet Union pioneered in these areas, even though most of them inherited extreme underdevelopment. Developed capitalist countries in Western Europe and Japan then instituted forms of national health care and state-subsidized higher education.
But in the U.S. both higher education and medical care are increasingly chained to the profit interests of the very rich. This multiplies the already existing wealth gap. Being poor means you’re often less educated and sicker, which then perpetuates your poverty. The result is that the U.S. has very poor overall rankings in many health studies.
These days, even a modest college education costs tens of thousands of dollars, and most students start out their working lives — assuming they find a job — saddled with enormous debts.
Health insurance, often depending on whether you have a union job or not, can cost many hundreds of dollars a month. This is clearly unaffordable if you have a near-minimum-wage job and impossible if you have no job.
Since the last year covered by the study — 2008 — this situation for the working class has only worsened. The capitalist economic crisis that hit the housing market in 2008 and then moved to the banks via the mortgage crisis has brought four years of persistent high unemployment, with no end in sight. Future studies covering the period since 2008 will undoubtedly show an even greater health gap.
The United States, despite all the propaganda about being the great land of opportunity, actually has the worst statistics of all the developed countries when it comes to longevity. A study completed last year by the Human Mortality Database showed that life expectancy for women in the United States had dropped from a middle ranking in 1970 to the lowest of all the developed countries by 2010. (New York Times, Sept. 20)
Huge class and racial divisions
The recent study on education and life expectancy shows how huge class and racial divisions shorten the lives of millions in this immensely wealthy country. It states, “To provide perspective on the magnitude of the negative effect of the absence of an education and all that accompanies this disadvantage on longevity, consider that black females with less than 12 years of education have the same life expectancy as women now living in Vietnam; black males with less than 12 years of education have the same life expectancy as men now living in India.”
Both Vietnam and India are countries that were impoverished through the theft of their resources over many generations by the colonial rulers in France and Britain, respectively. Vietnam then suffered a massive U.S. war that destroyed much of its infrastructure and poisoned its land with the herbicide Agent Orange, created by Dow Chemical.
African Americans have a history of oppression as an internal colony within the U.S. The racist Jim Crow system super-exploited the labor of those who had formerly been enslaved. Chattel slavery was abolished, but African Americans were denied political and economic liberation by the reign of Ku Klux Klan terror that kept them chained to the sharecropping system, forced to work for the same former slave owners at little more than starvation wages.
It was only the massive resistance of the Black population through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that put an end to the era of legalized white supremacy. These struggles underlie the improvements in life expectancy for Black people in the U.S.
In addition, Black workers have a more advanced class consciousness. They have been playing a leading role in labor struggles against cutbacks and layoffs, as seen most recently in the Chicago teachers’ strike. They also achieved a higher rate of union membership than white workers: 16.3 percent compared to 13.6 percent. (figures for 2004-2007, Economic Policy Institute)
The report notes that the number of whites who did not finish high school declined in the period 1990 to 2008 to 8 percent of the white population. That percentage, however, still adds up to roughly 16 million whites counted in this study.
What accounts for the dramatic reversal in their life expectancy? Certainly changes in the economy must be examined.
This was the period of the galloping high-tech revolution. Millions of jobs that earlier might have been available to a person with limited education were disappearing. Moreover, the bosses intensified their union-busting attacks and forced down real wages to the levels of the 1960s. With this revolution in technology came the advent of part-time and temporary low-wage jobs — with no benefits like health coverage — as the new norm, leading to an increase in poverty.
The hardest thing for most people to understand is that greater productivity under capitalism does not translate into generalized improvement in living standards. Quite the opposite. It’s hard to understand this because it is so contrary to what should be happening.
Indeed, the biggest boosters for the capitalist system constantly point to technological innovation as the promise for the future. But under capitalism greater productivity leads to greater monopolization and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
The working class as a whole — Black, white, immigrants, young and old, workers of all genders and sexualities — is in desperate need of a broad-based, militant social movement that challenges the very premises of capitalist exploitation. Nothing less can reverse the decline in health and general welfare and make a reality of that old toast, “Here’s to a long life and a merry one.”