We’ve written about how Chicago’s high murder rate is a legacy of segregation. But it’s not just dangerous to live in a poor neighborhood. According to a new study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, it’s also unhealthy. The study looked at the differences in life expectancies between people in, say, Old Town and people in West Garfield Park. Even though the neighborhoods are only a few miles apart, the differences in life expectancy are as severe as the differences between First World and Third World countries.
Add up and compare all these maps, and a couple of alarming conclusions emerge from the new report, Place Matters for Health in Cook County. Researchers with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in conjunction with the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University, have found that people living in Chicago neighborhoods with a median income higher than $53,000 a year have a life expectancy almost 14 years longer than Chicagoans who live in communities with a median income below $25,000.
And because of the city’s historic segregation, this also means those people with shorter life expectancies – a proxy for poor health outcomes – are invariably minorities. This research reinforces an idea we’ve written about previously: that where you live may be the most important determinant of your health.
“Place really is the fundamental [issue],” says Brian Smedley, director of the Health Policy Institute at the Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Residential segregation is really the fundamental driver of many of the health inequalities that we see.”
Life expectancy in Cook County varies by as much as 33 years, depending on your census tract. And, as the report’s authors chide: “It is unacceptable in the world’s wealthiest society that a person’s life can be cut short by more than a decade simply because of where one lives and factors over which he or she has no control.”
The maps showing the links between poverty, lack of access to fresh food and lower life expectancy illustrate that segregation and inequality are not only Chicago’s most important historical issues, but its most important contemporary issues. Is there any place in the world where you can see rich and poor living so closely together, yet having so little contact with each other? Chicago likes to call itself the most American city, so it makes sense that as America becomes more unequal, Chicago will become more unequal. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made eradicating food deserts a cause of his administration. Last year, he appeared with healthy-eating advocate Michelle Obama to announce the opening of 17 new groceries in poor neighborhoods. Those stores are needed, but as the maps show, they’re not the solution to the real problem.
This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.