have all heard the media complain about the rising "wealth gap" in
the United States, but now there is a new alleged crisis: the
"health gap," or the supposedly growing divide between the health
status of blacks and whites.
Last August the San Jose
Mercury News published a seven-part front-page series on the
subject. The theme of the Mercury News expose was laid out in
the very first sentence: "In the world’s most advanced democracy, in
an era when medical miracles are commonplace, millions of ethnic
minorities are living lives that belie all that progress." Earlier
in the year the Associated Press issued a similarly bleak story
noting that "the racial gap in infant mortality is growing." We have
also seen alarming stories in newspapers like the Chicago Tribune
regarding the fact that the proportion of AIDS victims who are
female and black is on the rise.
every public health statistic contradicts the health-gap fantasy.
For example, it’s true, as
the Mercury News reports, that whites have longer life
expectancies than blacks and Latinos. It’s also true that
infant-mortality rates for whites (6.3 per 1,000 births) are less
than half those of blacks (14.6 per 1,000 births). But the trends in
health show vast improvements for both races. For all Americans,
here is the incredible long-term trend for infant mortality: A child
is ten times less likely to die at birth today than in 1900, and
about three times less likely than in 1950.
Have minorities been left
behind? Hardly. The rate of decline in infant mortality for black
Americans has shown tremendous and virtually uninterrupted
improvement over the past century. The black infant-mortality rate
has fallen from 180 per 1,000 live births in 1900 to 50 per 1,000 in
1950 to 15 per 1,000 today.
Yes, in recent years the
black-white gap has widened slightly, but only because the rate has
fallen faster for whites than for blacks. The more revealing
long-term trend shows that the infant-mortality racial gap has
narrowed over time.
The same is true for life
expectancy. Life expectancy in the U.S. for minorities is about six
to eight years shorter than for whites. That’s the bad news. The
good news is that the increase in life expectancy for non-white
Americans has been even faster than for whites. In 1900 non-whites
had a life expectancy of about 35 years; today that is up to 70. We
have doubled the length of life for minorities in this century in
So it is with virtually
every health statistic. Black death rates from diabetes, nearly
every form of cancer, and, yes, even AIDS are plummeting. In fact,
the number of blacks and Latinos dying of AIDS has been cut in half
— in just ten years! Or take heart disease. Last month, the Centers
for Disease Control published the most recent data on that killer.
From 1988 through 1995, the rate of heart disease per 100,000
Americans dropped from 117 to 108. Here is what the report says
about the black-white health gap: "Previously black adults had 40
percent greater likelihood of dying from heart failure than whites.
That gap has narrowed to ten percent or less."
I challenge the Associated
Press, the Chicago Tribune, or the San Jose Mercury News
to find a single health statistic over the past 30, 40, or 50 years
that has shown deterioration rather than improvement for minorities.
To my knowledge, there’s not a single one.
In fact, if we’re
interested in health gaps, then we ought to be focusing on gender,
not race. For infant mortality and life expectancy the gap is at
least as large between the sexes as between the races. But does
anyone really believe that women live longer and have lower
infant-mortality rates because men are discriminated against?
The obvious question is:
How can unequivocal good news for minorities be twisted so badly?
One answer is the tendency in the media to translate every issue in
America into black and white. The implication of the health-gap
story is that despite great gains in health for blacks in recent
decades, somehow blacks would be better off if life expectancy of
whites had shown less progress. Then we would all be equal.
More likely, the
explanation for this bogus story is the old adage that bad news
sells newspapers. The health-gap premise is the search for a cloud —
any cloud — in a beautifully sunny sky.
Stephen Moore is an
economist at the Cato Institute. He researched this article during a
fellowship with the Hoover Institution.