“You can predict the life expectancy of a child by the zip code in which they grow up. This is wrong.” This was quoted from Shaun Donovan,U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary, in a Roll Call opinion piece by HUD’s Raphael Bostic, PhD and Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). A child’s zip code is more of a determinant than its genetic code. Why is this true?
- A HUD demonstration research project showed poor mothers given the chance to live in safer wealthier neighborhoods had lower rates of obesity, diabetes, psychological distress, and major depression.
- How a home is built plays a key role in asthma incidence, a major costly health problem in children. About 40 percent of asthma cases are triggered at home. Despite health care and insurance, children who live amongst water leaks, bad ventilation, moldy carpets and other allergens suffer more often acutely. An estimated 13 million missed school days and 3.2 billion in medical costs resulted from low-income housing allergens according to June/July In Health.
- Lead exposure is one of the most common health problems in U.S. children. Lead comes from paint in old buildings built before 1978 or on old furniture, gasoline in soil and imported toys. Low-level lead poisoning in children under six years old causes learning and behavioral problems.
- Racial residential segregation. One outstanding example is a report on Orleans Parish in New Orleans, Louisiana where zip code in the parish varied life expectancy by over 25 years. The poorest zip code, 70112, is mostly African American with an average life expectancy of 54.5 years. In zip code 70124, mostly white and less poor, life expectancy is 80. That is a difference of 25.5 years.
- According to the California Department of Education, African American and Latino seventh-graders in Oakland for example read below the level of white third-graders. Numerous studies have linked education to mortality and the incidence of heart disease, certain types of cancer and other illnesses.
- Children living in areas with a better educational environment of lower school absenteeism, fewer students scoring below basic proficiency levels and more college graduate adults live nearly nine years longer, according to a November 2012 Baltimore, Maryland report Place Matters for Health.
- 6.5 million children live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods in the U.S. over a mile from a supermarket. 17 million children lived in households experiencing hunger multiple times a year according to a 2008 USDA report. The latest USDA report based on 2011 figures says in that year 14.9 percent of U.S. households were “food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security.” Hunger reached every county in the nation ranging from a low of 5 percent of people in Steele County, North Dakota to 38 percent in Wilcox County, Alabama. Research has shown that children who went hungry at least once in their lives were 2 1/2 times more likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later than those who did not.
- The United Way in Dane County, Wisconsin in June 2013 launched its 10 year campaign for access to healthy food for children. It is based on the findings that an adequate healthy food supply is critical for children’s healthy development and academic success, affecting brain growth especially in the first eight years of life and overall mental health.
- Nutrients in vegetables, fruits and whole grains grow strong bodies and decrease chances of obesity.
Safe public areas
- Residents in areas of high densities of liquor stores, vacant properties, rodent- or insect-infested homes, and lead exposure have an average life expectancy six to nine years shorter than those with lowest rates.
- According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Justice bulletin, Child and Youth Victimization Known to Police, School, and Medical Authorities, 46 percent of victimized children were known by authorities to be exposed to violence and needed help in getting away from gangs.
- Programs like Cease Fire in California are identifying and defusing potentially violent situations, reducing gang-related homicides by over 75 percent in Stockton and 80 percent in Salinas. Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are experiencing similar successes.
- At the California Museum in Sacramento, an exhibit based on the U.S. Census and Programs Measure of America’s Human Development research statistics showing zip codes predicting life expectancy offers “an interactive adventure through a virtual school cafeteria, a fateful trip to the grocery store, a brush with school yard bullies, and a chance for visitors to physically navigate a city street where surroundings can be a matter of life and death.” Play the game online.
Some other factors influencing children’s life expectancies are access to child care, transportation and jobs. View the RWJF site for their series of city maps showing the variations in life expectancies. To calculate a personal life expectancy online, view this site.