How to close NYC’s lifespan gap? The answer may surprise you

This blog post originally appeared in Crain’s New York Business on December 18, 2015. You can access the original article here.

New data reveals a yawning chasm in life expectancy among the city’s residents, with startling implications. While the average life expectancy citywide is 81 years, stunning disparities exist across our neighborhoods. A baby born today in Tribeca can expect to live more than 11 years longer than one born in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Will Obamacare help? One would think that residents with health insurance would live longer, healthier lives than those without it. After all, insurance helps people afford necessary preventive care, medicine for illnesses, and more. Under Obamacare, New Yorkers must get coverage or face penalties in 2016.

But, surprisingly, the relationship between life expectancy and health insurance across neighborhoods is not statistically significant, according to DATA2GO.NYC, a new public mapping and data website with hundreds of well-being indicators. In fact, the community districts with the lowest percentage of insured adults—Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona in Queens—have some of the longest life expectancies in the city, around 84 years. In these neighborhoods, only about 60% of adults are covered. In Brownsville, the district with the shortest life expectancy, 80% of adults have health insurance (slightly more than the city average).

Instead, employment is a much stronger predictor of life expectancy in the city. As the unemployment rate decreases, life expectancy tends to rise. While correlation does not equal causation, this connection is compelling and instructive. Unemployment and the economic insecurity it creates can damage health; people struggling with the stress of poverty are vulnerable to premature aging and a higher risk of heart attack, and they are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors like smoking and heavy drinking. Their children are at risk as well: Children who live in economically insecure households tend to have poorer health outcomes than their peers.

These findings don’t imply we should abandon efforts to get more New Yorkers covered by health insurance. Access to doctors and medicine are essential, particularly once you are ill. Rather, they suggest that reducing the massive gaps in life expectancy citywide also requires concerted efforts to address economic insecurity in neighborhoods like Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Employment is one piece of the puzzle that will help improve well-being in neighborhoods like Brownsville. A holistic assessment of New York’s strengths and challenges will help uncover the others.

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis are co-directors of Measure of America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy initiative of the Social Science Research Council, which created DATA2GO.NYC with a grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.