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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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November 1998


The Good News About Minorities' Health
Guest Editorial, Stephen Moore

We 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.

Fortunately, virtually 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 America.

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.

Rich Noyes


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