As any of my loyal readers know, this blog skews towards the depressing. I mean, my New Year’s post to start 2020 was about inequality in death. Maybe this tendency explains why I was writing a Blog Post on New Year’s Eve instead of being invited to some huge party. Sigh! But, I digress.

That 2020 post was about mortality inequality. The main takeaway was that those with more education have seen larger improvement in life expectancy than those with less education. Between 1979 and 2011, the least educated quarter of men saw life expectancy at age 65 increase by 1.4 years. The most educated men’s increased by 3.5 years. For women, those same numbers were 1.1 and 2.9, respectively.

But, over the same time period, one measure of mortality inequality had actually been improving: life expectancy at birth across racial groups. That’s right, good news! Of course, as part of the “Economist’s Creed,” I am contractually obligated to follow up any good news with bad news. New CDC data make it clear that COVID-19 put an abrupt end to this trend. God, I suck.

The Closing Life Expectancy Gap

Let’s start with the good news. The figure below shows the gap in life expectancy at birth between Black men and women as compared to their white counterparts.

Figure 1. Black Life Expectancy Minus White Life Expectancy at Birth, 1980-2017

The figure clearly shows improvement, albeit non-linearly. The 1980s were a period of widening inequality between Black people and white people in the U.S. This widening was attributable to the differential effects of HIV. For men, widening inequality in homicides also played a role.

However, the 1990s and early 2000s were a different story. From 1992 to 2017, the Black versus white life expectancy gap closed by 3.7 years for men and 3.2 years for women. This decline was driven by relative improvements in homicide, HIV, and heart disease.

It’s also worth noting that relative increases in white middle-age death from overdoses also played a role. This phenomena has been well-documented, and likely has an economic origin. It also reminds us that declines in inequality can happen for really bad reasons. (You know what dropped during the Great Depression? Wealth inequality.) Speaking of “really bad,” I think COVID qualifies.

COVID and Life Expectancy

Recently, the CDC released data on U.S. Life Expectancy in 2020. And, it dropped by 1.5 years, the biggest decline since WWII. Anyone who still thinks COVID is sort of like the flu might want to click on that last link.

And, as I wrote back in April 2020, every reason existed to think that COVID would disproportionately affect Black people. And, that inequality has played out. The figure below shows 2017 versus 2020 numbers on life expectancy for Black people versus white people. The larger declines for Black people are crystal clear.

Figure 2. 2017 Versus 2020 Life Expectancy at Birth, by Race and Gender

Let me put it to you a bit differently. In 2017, the racial life expectancy gap stood at 4.5 and 2.7 years for men and women respectively. Those numbers are now 7.0 and 4.5. The last time Black men were expected to live 7 years less than white men was 1997. The last time Black women were expected to live 4.5 years less was 2003. That’s a lot of progress lost.

I don’t have much to add to what I wrote in April 2020, so let me quote myself. “While it is too late to address the inequities that existed leading up to this crisis, it is certainly a good time to reflect on what we can do better in the future. After all, when society allows persistent inequality, the suffering is there in the best of times. But, when the storm comes, it quickly becomes a matter of life and death.” These new data make it clear just how quickly.