Income inequality is correlated with more deaths in African-American communities. Flickr/photocapy

A new study reveals race plays a surprisingly major role in the number of deaths that income inequality contributes to.

The income gap between the rich and the poor is known to affect mortality, and a new study reveals that there is also a racial component. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have examined the association of income inequality with the number of deaths in white and African-American communities. For African Americans, the number of deaths go hand-in-hand with the extent of income inequality; for white Americans, the trend is reversed.

“Income inequality matters for everyone, but it matters differently for different groups of people.” says Amani Nuru-Jeter, associate professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and an author of the study. There have been a number of studies that link wage gaps to health disparities, but they usually examine the American population as a whole, says Nuru-Jeter. What this study has done differently is factor in race.

The researchers took Census data from 107 metropolitan areas with at least a 10 percent African-American population. With each unit increase in income inequality, up to 37 more deaths occurred among African Americans. For white Americans, each unit increase resulted in up to 480 fewer deaths.

Racial neighborhood segregation explains the higher number of deaths in the black population, but not in the white population.

"Place matters. That’s not news." Nuru-Jeter says. CityLab has reported on studies that back up this link between racial segregation and health disparities among African Americans. Some of the reasons are obvious: not enough nutritional resources, lack of health-care institutions, and low levels of education make it hard for people living in these neighborhoods to be as healthy as people living in more affluent neighborhoods.

Plus, residents of these neighborhoods are aware of their disadvantages—and that makes a difference, Nuru-Jeter says. People know that they're stuck in neighborhoods with more liquor stores than grocery stores, more crime and fewer opportunities, and this knowledge adds additional stress, worsening their health.

For the white population, economic segregation (in fact, lack thereof) might explain the decrease in deaths with the rise in income inequality. Low-income white people are still more likely to live in economically advantaged neighborhoods (with high- and middle-income whites). On the other hand, high- and middle-income blacks are more still likely to reside in low-income neighborhoods (with low-income African Americans).

"Lower-income whites may benefit from social and environmental conditions in middle- to higher-income areas," Nuru-Jeter says.

It's also possible that because the overall number of high-income whites is much larger than middle-to-low income whites, more white people in general have better health, overshadowing the few low-income whites whose health might be negatively affected.

But these are just guesses; the researchers don't yet have a clear answer.

"Although more research is needed, we can still act on what we know about racially segregated areas," Nuru-Jeter says. Everyone, regardless of zip code, should have equal opportunities for health, she says.

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