Our nation cannot fully celebrate the freeing of slaves 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Black poverty, unemployment, poor health care, inadequate housing and a variety of social ills remain unaddressed. President Obama, however, has a unique opportunity to correct two of the greatest concerns of the Black community: shorter life expectancy compared to the general population and extremely high infant mortality rates. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, could have a positive effect on both issues. Â The act, which will go into full effect in 2014, has received overwhelming support from the Black community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black life expectancy in America is nearly four years less than for Whites (78.9 for Whites compared to 75.1 for Blacks). The disparity between Black males and Whites males is even greater: 76.5 for Whites versus 71.8). As a result, the average Black male will only be eligible for five years of social security benefits compared with ten years for White males.
Similarly, the infant mortality rate for Blacks was more than twice the rate for Whites and Latinos, and almost three times greater than the rate for Asian Americans at the time President Obama first took office. In very large measure, this disparity is attributable to a lack of focus on prenatal and early childhood healthcare. In contrast, more than a quarter of the United State’s $3 trillion annual healthcare costs are expended primarily on those in their 80s and 90s, during the last six months of their lives. America’s infant mortality rate is almost three times higher than in Japan and twice as high as nations such as Spain and Italy. Surprisingly, our nation’s infant mortality rate is 20 percent higher than in the underdeveloped nation of Cuba—and even higher than in our unincorporated territory of Guam.
Obamacare does not yet focus on the limited Black life expectancy rate or the gaps in our infant mortality rate. Many of our Black church leaders, however, believe that there is hope, particularly in the context of President Obama’s recent forceful speech on the need for upward mobility to eradicate these differences. Preventive care services within the larger health reform agenda must come from the back burner to the forefront.
A growing church-led plan to enhance Obamacare aims to cut the Black infant mortality rate to the same level as in Japan: two per every one thousand. This plan also aims to increase Black life expectancy to Japan’s rate of 84 years. We intend to launch these plans at the Orange County Interdenominational Alliance meeting on August 19, 2013 along with pastors from ethnic minority communities.
These dreams are realistic dreams. Life expectancy for Blacks has increased from 33 years in 1890 to over 74 years today. And, infant mortality for Blacks, which was 210 per thousand births in 1890, now has been reduced to just six per thousand. But we have more work to do.
Our interdenominational alliance, led by Black, Latino, and Asian pastors, will benefit all Americans, since properly allocated health resources will increase the life expectancy for the entire population, including Whites. For example, life expectancy in America was just 48 years in 1890 for Whites but could soon be 84 years under Obamacare and thereby match the rate in Japan. (It is also important to note that for many years, the Latino and Asian American life expectancy rates have been higher and their infant mortality rates lower than for Whites.)
As in any major national plan, Obamacare has omissions that can be corrected. The first issue is the need for effective outreach to the most underserved communities, such as to our nation’s 44 million Blacks, in a culturally sensitive fashion. Outreach is especially important, since our nation spends twice as much per capita on healthcare than any other nation in the world, including the almost thirty nations with higher life expectancies.
A second omission, to date, is the absence of a specific set of targets and goals.
A third omission, and perhaps the most important, is the absence of a specific allocation to Â decrease infant mortality, enhance healthcare for mothers and young children, and aid our most vulnerable senior citizens. These objectives can be reached, along with far greater public support for Obamacare, by allocating as little as two percent of our $3 trillion annual healthcare budget—$60 billion a year over the next five years—to support this effort.
As Dr. King stated at a time when Black life expectancy was less than 64 years and the average Black did not live long enough to qualify for social security benefits, “We Shall Overcome.” The President now has the opportunity to implement Dr. King’s dream of full equality in two crucial measures: increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality.
Photograph by Jeff Kubina
Mark Whitlock is the executive director of USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.