For decades, American children have grown up believing that they would have it better — live more prosperously and longer — than their elders.
Multiple studies in recent years have cast considerable doubt on the first assertion. And now several studies have indicated that for certain groups of Americans, life expectancy is dropping.
That is not supposed to happen in this great country. And yet it is. Researchers have found that since 1990, life expectancy for America’s least educated whites — those who do not have a high school diploma — has fallen by four years. According to a New York Times story, the drop is even more pronounced — five years — for the least educated white women. Life expectancy for blacks and Hispanics with the same level of education rose during the period. Although blacks overall do not live as long as whites, Hispanics overall outlive both blacks and whites.
The study, compiled by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and published in Health Affairs, shows that white women without a high school diploma die about 10 years earlier than white women with at least a college degree — 73.5 years to 83.9 years. For men without a high school diploma, average life expectancy was 67.5 years — almost 13 years shorter than men with at least a college degree (80.4 years).
Researchers alarmed by the findings could only speculate about possible explanations, but their guesses are plenty educated. Among them are higher rates of smoking among less educated women, rising obesity among men and women, prescription drug overdose and the rising percentage of less educated people who are uninsured. For example, in 1993, 35 percent of working-age adults with less than a high school education had no health insurance; by 2006, that share had risen to 43 percent — and that was before the onset of the Great Recession.
Researchers note that the number of whites without a high school diploma is dwindling; they made up about 22 percent of the population in 1990 but constitute just 12 percent of it now. Commenting on that, S. Jay Olhshanky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead investigator, said, “The good news is that there are fewer people in this group. The bad news is that those who are in it are dying more quickly.”
That doesn’t need to happen. Surely this trend can be reversed. In fact it must be reversed. Better education is essential, and becoming educated involves not just staying in school but learning to make decisions — including those involving child-rearing at a young age — that affect education, job prospects and, ultimately, quality of life.