The discomfiting reality of life expectancy: It’s about economics and opportunity | COMMENTARY

A woman holds a Black Lives Matter sign at a spring rally in Baltimore last year.

Life expectancy is down across the United States for the second year in a row — from an average of 77 years in 2020 to 76.1 years in 2021 — with much of the drop attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. But an even more troubling and persistent trend is evident in the data presented earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Black Americans are still expected to live much shorter lives than white, Asian and Hispanic Americans, with their average life span last year pegged at 70.8 years. That’s 5.6 to 12.7 years fewer than those other racial categories. In fact, Black men are consistently shorter lived than all other groups except native Alaskans (where a chronic lack of medical care is a major factor for the isolated population).

So, why are Black lives so much shorter? Maryland’s statistics from 2020, the latest year for which state and local numbers are available, offer a major clue.


While the state’s overall life expectancy is 78.6 years, the number for Black individuals living in Baltimore City is 69.7, a nearly nine-year difference. Meanwhile, white city residents have a life expectancy of 75.7 years. This might lead the casual observer to assume the discrepency might be a matter of race. But it really isn’t about race at all. It’s a matter of income an opportunity.

In wealthier counties, including Montgomery and Howard, life expectancy is much higher for Black residents: nearly 82 years for Montgomery County — 12 years longer than in Balitmore. The major difference? Black Americans living in Baltimore are far more likely to be stuck below the poverty line, while the median household incomes in Montgomery and Howard counties are at least twice that of the city.


Racial disparities in life expectancy have long been analyzed and debated. The leading view is that while individual behavior can play a factor, what we’re seeing is the result of broader social trends. Call it the legacy of redlining: For generations, in cities like Baltimore, African Americans have been offered the short-end of the stick. They are more likely to be forced to live in neighborhoods with toxic environmental threats and to have less access to well-paying jobs (or transportation to them), good schools, quality medical care and so on. They are more likely to face housing insecurity and to live in neighborhoods with failing infrastructure and poor return on investment. Racial segregation and wealth stratification reflecting generations of system racism — this is at the heart of the imbalance.

Scratch the surface of any of the recent controversies that have captured the public’s attention in Baltimore and you will find the legacy of concentrated poverty and its impact on the Black community. Squeegee workers coming into conflict with white suburban motorists? Check. Gun violence when firearms are easy to obtain but jobs aren’t? Obviously. COVID deaths? Yes. Police brutality? The protests following the death of Freddie Gray were supposed to provide a wake-up call. Some heard it. Some did not.

To lengthen the lives of Black people living in Baltimore will take more than better medical care or lifestyle choices. Catch-up investments in housing, health, education, social support structures, environmental safety and opportunity are needed, yes. But any effort ought to start with a recognition of the terrible harm that systemic racism and segregation have done to so many families for so long. Baltimoreans have come to understand this on some level. Can the same be said for the rest of the country?

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.