Report and Mapping Tool Show How Much Race, Income, Education, and Neighborhood Conditions Affect How Long Northern Virginians Live
SPRINGFIELD, VA (June 7, 2016) – Babies born a 30-minute drive apart in Northern Virginia face as much as a 13-year difference in average life expectancy because of their race, income, education, and other factors, according to a new report by the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Society and Health and the Northern Virginia Health Foundation (NVHF). A baby born in western Lorton is expected to live to age 89, while a baby born a short distance away in nearby Manassas has a life expectancy of only 76 years, says the report, which is being released along with an interactive mapping tool that displays life expectancy by neighborhood.
The report is the first of its kind to examine differences in life expectancy, income, race, and education in Northern Virginia neighborhoods, and it reveals stark differences throughout the region. Here are just a few examples:
- In Fairfax County, life expectancy can vary by as much as 10 years between western Lorton versus eastern Lorton, just four miles apart (89 versus 79 years). In western Lorton, median household income is $133,413 per year, and African Americans represent 12 percent of the population. In eastern Lorton, median income is $77,901 per year and 37 percent of residents are African-American.
- In Prince William County, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher is three times greater on the west side of Interstate-95 in Montclair (48 percent) compared to Dumfries (16 percent). Life expectancy in these two areas can vary by as much as 7 years (84 years versus 77 years).
- In the Seminary Hill neighborhood of Alexandria, average annual income is $186,705 per year and 95 percent of residents have an education beyond high school, but a few miles away on the north side of I-395 (Shirley Highway) in Beauregard, the average income is $44,624 per year and 72 percent have an education beyond high school. Life expectancy in these two areas can vary by as much as 5 years (84 years in Seminary Hill versus 79 years in Beauregard).
“Northern Virginia is one of the most prosperous places in the country, with counties that consistently rank the highest in the state when it comes to health. But a closer look reveals how good health is not shared equally across neighborhoods in our region,” said NVHF President and CEO Patricia N. Mathews. “There are very real inequities threatening the health and wellbeing of our residents,” she said.
VCU researchers say that these differences in health are the result of a mix of factors. Access to health care and individual health behaviors play a role, but social and economic factors have a greater influence on health and life expectancy. These include education, income level, race, and neighborhood conditions—such as unsafe housing, proximity to transportation, and access to healthy foods.
“What we’re seeing in Northern Virginia reflects trends all over the country as income inequalities have grown and economic problems have impacted the middle class. It’s affecting not only their pocketbooks, but their health,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, report author and director of VCU’s Center on Society and Health.
“Your education level, income, and race play a large role in how healthy you are and how long you live. Without an education beyond high school, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a good job and affording your living expenses, let alone the cost of healthy foods or health care. The economy and a history of disinvestment have made certain neighborhoods unhealthy to live in. Reinvesting in these areas of need is the best way to improve our health and give babies an equal chance at a long life,” he added.
A mapping tool developed by VCU and NVHF allows users to compare neighborhoods by “zooming in” on census tracts and examining their life expectancy, education, income levels, and racial-ethnic composition. The mapping tool and report focus on census tracts, which are generally smaller and provide a more detailed look at a neighborhood than zip codes.
A close examination of the data shows how differences in life expectancy and health between neighborhoods are linked to income and race. For example, in Hybla Valley (census tract 4215), west of Route 1 in Fairfax County, newborns can expect to live to age 78. Here, African Americans and Hispanic residents comprise 24 and 46 percent of the population, respectively. Annual median income is $45,572, and 19 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. Only two miles away in the Arcturus neighborhood of Fort Hunt (census tract 4156), average life expectancy is 84 years, 95 percent of residents are white, the annual median income is $163,750, and no residents live below the poverty level.
Immigrants in the Region
Over the last few decades, the immigrant population of Northern Virginia has grown significantly, and 26 percent of residents are foreign-born. According to the report, immigrant communities face greater economic challenges, sometimes only blocks away from more established, affluent neighborhoods.
For example, in the Seminary Hill neighborhood (census tract 2002.02) of Alexandria, where babies can expect to live to 84 years of age, income levels average $186,705 per year and approximately 10 percent of residents are foreign-born. To the north in Beauregard (census tract 2001.05), median income is a quarter that of the other tract ($44,624) and the percentage of adults with no education beyond high school is more than five times higher. Here, 51 percent of residents are foreign-born.
“The economic pressure facing low-income communities can incite stress, depression, family turmoil, even violence. People of color and the poor have historically borne this burden, but economic marginalization and the health problems it brings are now being felt by middle class families across all racial backgrounds. We’re all in this together, and the answer is not just to invest more in health care. That’s important, but we won’t see real change until we improve the economic wellbeing of local families,” said Dr. Woolf.
Researchers urge policymakers to take steps to address these inequities, including investing in evidence-based programs known to lift families out of poverty, such as early childhood education; making post-secondary education more accessible and affordable; and increasing job training. Improving transportation options, such as adding bus routes and making the Metro affordable enough for low-income individuals to use it to get to work; building grocery stores; putting in sidewalks on major thoroughfares; and promoting walking and cycling are examples of small changes that can add up to better health, they say.
“This is a call to action for the region,” said Ms. Mathews. “Our demographics are changing and these inequities are growing. The good news is that if we take strategic action, we can improve people’s lives. These steps could also significantly help reduce health care costs, increase education levels, and enhance the economic vitality of the region.”
The Foundation is releasing the report and mapping tool at its 10th Anniversary Community Health Summit, which is bringing together community leaders and policymakers from across the region to discuss these health disparities in Northern Virginia neighborhoods.
NVHF hopes that state and local leaders will use the report and mapping tool to take a close look at problem areas, assess how current policies are affecting residents’ health, and consider new ways to work together with other leaders to improve health in the region.
To download the report and view the mapping tool, visit http://novahealthfdn.org/life-expectancy-nova/
About the Northern Virginia Health Foundation
The Northern Virginia Health Foundation is dedicated to improving the health and health care of residents of Northern Virginia, with a particular emphasis on low-income, uninsured, and underinsured persons. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.twitter.com/novahealthfdn.
About the Virginia Community University (VCU) Center on Society and Health
The VCU Center on Society and Health is an academic research center that studies the health implications of social factors—such as education, income, neighborhood and community environmental conditions, and public policy. Its mission is to answer relevant questions that can “move the needle” to improve the health of Americans. We present our work in formats and venues that are useful to decision-makers and change agents. The Center pursues these goals through collaboration with scholars in different disciplines at VCU and other institutions, and by nurturing partnerships with community, government, and private-sector stakeholders.