This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.
Today (Monday, Sept. 15) is the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month. Undoubtedly, one of the topics that will be discussed in the media over the next 30 days is healthcare in the Latino community. Last year, for instance, CNN ran an article that discussed how Hispanics were less likely to seek out treatment for mental health issues, possibly because of a stigma that exists in the community.
Other sources offer more dire information. In an article titled “The Truth Behind Latino Health Disparities,” George Washington University says that Hispanics suffer from obesity, HIV, and other conditions due to “less education, higher rates of poverty, unhealthy living conditions and environmental hazards.” The U.S. government apparently believes that ethnic health disparities are a big enough issue to warrant their own bureaucracy: The Office of Minority Health.
Given the information available, one would predict that Hispanics have a shorter life expectancy than whites in America. But, that’s not true. The latest CDC data (PDF, Table 8) reveals that the life expectancy at birth for Hispanics in the U.S. is the highest of all ethnic groups examined:
What is going on? How can Hispanics suffer from more health problems than whites, yet somehow live longer? There are at least two, non-mutually exclusive explanations:
1) Immigration, both legal and illegal. Notably, the life expectancy data shown above is at birth. Quite likely, Hispanic immigrants are poorer and less healthy than Hispanics born and raised in the U.S. Furthermore, health studies often do not report immigration status, almost certainly due to political reasons. (More on that below.) Yet, this matters. A person living illegally in the U.S. may be less likely to seek medical assistance out of fear of being deported.
2) Hispanics suffer from a lower quality of life. Quality of life is difficult to measure, but that doesn’t mean epidemiologists haven’t tried. CDC data shows that Hispanics are likelier to report poorer overall health (e.g., more unhealthy days) than non-Hispanics (PDF, Table 1, p. 34). But once again, the data isn’t broken down by immigration status.
Thus, it would be highly advisable for the CDC to investigate how immigration status affects ethnic health disparities. But it probably will not.
In our current political environment, politicians (particularly those on the Left) tend to interpret all disparities among minorities as being the result of bias or discrimination. It is politically convenient, but the life expectancy at birth data for Hispanics suggests something other than social injustice. While “discrimination” is an easy answer, the trouble with easy answers is that they often come at the expense of correct ones.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “QuickStats: Life Expectancy at Birth, by Sex and Race/Ethnicity — United States, 2011.” MMWR 63 (35): 776. (Sept. 5, 2014.)