Where you live in the US can impact how long you live

The path along the East River is one of New York City’s great running routes.
The path along the East River is one of New York City’s great running routes.
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Where you live plays a major role in how well you live, and even how long—especially if you’re a poor American. As one recent study shows, residency in the right (or wrong) US state can mean a potential five-year difference in life expectancy.

The Pacific Standard reports that an April 2016 study shows that life expectancy for Americans in the bottom income quartile varied by nearly five years, depending on where they lived. Adjusting for race and ethnicity, researchers led by Raj Chetty of Stanford University, found that life expectancy for the lowest-income New York City residents was 81.8 years. In Gary, Indiana, it was 77.4 years.

For those in the top income quartile, life expectancy varied over 3 years in different commuting zones. Adjusting for race and ethnicity, the life expectancy of well-to-do people in Salt Lake City, Utah is 87.8. It is 84.1 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Depressingly, researchers also found that from 2001 to 2014, poor Americans saw no significant increase in life expectancy, whereas those at the top 5% of the income distribution saw a rise of about 3 years. 

Where you live can also impact your chances of moving up in the world. A June 2014 study, also led by Chetty linked childhood residency to the likelihood of improving your socio-economic standing: There’s a 4.4% probability that a child coming from a family in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution reaches the top fifth in Charlotte, North Carolina. That chance more than doubles at 10.8% in Salt Lake City, Utah, and at 12.9% in San Jose, California.

Much of this discrepancy might be traced to social support—financial assistance and outreach for poor Americans has been shown to vary dramatically from state to state. In an Aug. 2016 discussion paper from the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty researchers found that average annual cash assistance for low-income Americans varied from $1,957 to $5,811, depending on the state.

“A couple of thousand dollars to a poor family means a lot more than a couple of thousand dollars to a rich family,” said Sarah K. Bruch, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Iowa. “Given that these programs are for poor families, having differences of a couple of thousand dollars is huge.”

One way to improve longevity chances for low-income Americans might be to move toward cities: Low-income Americans have been found to live longer in urban areas, where there are higher levels of government expenditure, more immigrants, higher home prices and more college graduates.

As Chetty and his co-authors write in the 2014 study: “The US is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty.”