Poor White Women Are Dying Earlier, But We Still Don’t Know Why

Today’s RealClearPolitics featured a piece by Monica Potts from the American Prospect called “What’s Killing Poor White Women.” It is well-researched and engaging, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in women and public policy.

There are a few contributions to the discussion, however, that I believe merit further elaboration. The first being that she assumes that black means poor and white means rich, with no regard for gender. She writes,

“Another mystery emerged from the lifespan study: Black women without a high-school diploma are now outliving their white counterparts. As a group, blacks are more likely to die young, because the factors that determine well-being – income, education, access to health care – tend to be worse for blacks. … In a country where racism still plays a significant role in all that contributes to a healthier, longer life, what could be affecting whites more than blacks?”

The problem here is that it’s only “a mystery” if we start from the assumption that black women have it worse off than white women in all regards. In fact, racial poverty affects black men much more than black women. In the latest edition of economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth’s study “Women’s Figures,” average pay FAVORS African-American women over African-American men by 4.7 percent (yes, using the cumulative average of wages and disregarding life choices entirely).

When discussing female poverty, it’s more statistically significant to look at the distinction between women with children and women without, rather than the distinction between poor white and poor black women (I discuss that at length here). It’s vital to understand that white women have an inverse-benefit relationship to white men in income that, economically, black women do not have with black men. So to better understand this issue of “what’s killing poor white women,” racism is unlikely to be the culprit, which I think confounds the writer’s expectations somewhat, even though it really shouldn’t.

The tail-end of the article leads to a conclusion that cultural issues are at the heart of these poor white women’s predicament. And while that may be true, the top killers are precisely the same for women as they are for men: Sedentary living, obesity, smoking, heart disease and diabetes. It’s interesting it’s hitting the Bible Belt and rural South the most, but the assumption is there must be a cultural difference. It seems negligent to disregard the fact that the manufacturing economies that bolstered the South’s economic growth for decades have been razed by globalization and regulation in a way that no other region has suffered.

I’m very glad this topic made it to the front of curated opinions from all over the web. More people should be asking these questions, and I hope people continue to be dissatisfied by pat answers and assumptions, much in the way Potts’s article attacks most of her material.