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Black life expectancy gap in Chicago continues to get worse, report finds

From 2012 to 2017, the life expectancy gap between Black residents and non-Black residents grew from 8.3 years to 9.2 years, a report released Tuesday found.

Chicago skyline, seen from 31st Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive in July 2020.
Chicago skyline, seen from 31st Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive in July 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Black Chicagoans are expected to live more than nine years less than non-Black residents — and that gap in life expectancy is only growing, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report by the Chicago Department of Public Health presents a grim but unsurprising outlook on how inequities in housing, income, access to healthy food and trauma have contributed to the disparity in the city.

From 2012 to 2017, the life expectancy gap between Black residents and non-Black residents grew from 8.3 years to 9.2 years, the report found.

Black Chicagoans on average live 71.4 years while non-Black residents live 80.6 years. While non-Blacks saw their life expectancy drop by more than three months in those five years, life expectancy dropped for Blacks by more than 14 months. The report cites five main factors: chronic diseases, homicide, infant mortality, opioid overdoses and HIV, flu or other infections.

The report, titled The State of Health for Blacks in Chicago, indicates the diabetes-related death rate is 70% higher among Black residents than non-Blacks. Homicide rates are nine times higher; Black infants are three times as likely to die in their first year; and the rate of opioid-related overdoses are nearly three times higher for non-Black Chicagoans.

The report is the work of five Black women at CDPH — Blair Aikens, Dana Harper, Rachelle Paul-Brutus, Donna Scrutchins and Yaa Simpson — who sought to examine the systemic forces that have prevented Black Chicagoans from achieving “health equity.”

“To address the historical and present forms of racism, systematic exclusion, and sources of toxic stress that prevent Black Chicagoans from achieving health equity, we are calling ‘the village’ to action,” the group of women said in the report. “Members and allies of the Black community — public health professionals, health care providers, community advocates, policy makers, business owners, artists, students, and community residents — must join forces to address and eliminate these critical health inequities and their underlying causes.”

The report did not look at more recent years, but with a spike in gun violence recently and the emergence of COVID-19 there is a strong chance the gap has grown larger, said Phoenix Matthews, an associate dean for equity and inclusion at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“There are a number of indicators that potentially could widen the life expectancy gap,” said Matthews. “The high impact of COVID-19 on Black communities in Chicago, the rise of opioid deaths and gun-related deaths all combined could expand the life expectancy gap.”

The State of Health for Blacks in Chicago

Matthews, who is an expert on health disparities in underserved communities, said the report should serve as another sobering reminder of the need for targeted investment in Black communities.

“As someone who has been studying health inequities in minority communities for the past 25 years, this data is not at all surprising,” Matthews said. “It is sort of a snapshot of Black communities across the United States and is very consistent with both urban areas such as Chicago and rural areas.”

However, Matthews disagreed with the main factors contributing to the disparity. Factors such as chronic illnesses or gun violence are a byproduct of racist policies — such as redlining, lack of access to quality education and divestment in neighborhoods — and only when those social conditions and policies are changed will the life expectancy gap close, Matthews said.

The report did highlight some of those social conditions as contributing factors, like how nearly all majority-Black communities in Chicago have higher percentages of households experiencing severe rent burden and that earn less than $20,901 a year on a per-capita basis.

“This week of Juneteenth, The State of Health for Blacks in Chicago is a stark reminder of the legacy of unacceptable inequities that continue to plague our city and country to this day,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “This brief is also a call to action for our city and one we take very seriously.”