Media Highlights

The Income Gap, the Longevity Gap and the Opportunity Index

by Jennifer Jordan   •  

compelling story this weekend in the New York Times highlighted the sharply divergent life expectancies of residents of one of the wealthiest counties in the United States – Fairfax County, Virginia – and one of the poorest, located just 350 miles to its west – McDowell County, West Virginia.

In a country where everyone is supposed to have a fair shot at “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the report instead detailed a simplistically grim fate that many Americans would consider unjust: Where incomes are higher, life spans are longer.

“Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden,” reports Annie Lowrey. “In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.”

Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap raises questions about whether growing income inequality is contributing to this glaring disparity. It also explores how Obamacare and political proposals currently debated by Congress that are intended to mitigate poverty – such as raising the minimum wage –  might help close the gap between the lifespans of rich and poor Americans.

We decided to compare the overall climate for opportunity in both of these places using the Opportunity Index, a tool that measures key economic, educational and civic factors that can expand or constrict economic mobility.

What we found:

Fairfax County

Fairfax County, with a highly-educated population of 1.1 million located right outside of Washington DC, is one of just four counties nationwide, out of more than 3,000, to score an A on the 2013 Opportunity Index.

Fairfax County enjoys an unemployment rate below the national average and a median household income roughly double the national average of $49,000.

Notably, it outperforms the country on key education measures. Nearly 60 percent of children attend preschool, compared with 47 percent nationally, while 91 percent of students graduate from high school within four years, compared with 78 percent nationally. And close to 60 percent of adults have at least an associate’s degree, compared with 36.3 percent nationally.

Fairfax County also does well by its young adults, with just 6.9 percent of them disconnected from school or work, compared with 14.6 percent nationally.

All of these positive outcomes contribute to a higher quality and length of life, as research shows a strong correlation between education levels and overall health.

McDowell County

On the opposite end of the spectrum is McDowell County, which scored a D on the 2013 Opportunity Index. A county of about 21,000 residents in Appalachia, it is one of the poorest regions of the country and the focus of intensive interventions by the American Federation of Teachers to improve outcomes for children. McDowell is besieged by high unemployment and poverty levels more than twice the national average – 33.3 percent.

Educational outcomes are bleak. Not even 24 percent of four-year-olds attend pre-kindergarten, and just 74 percent of students graduate from high school on-time. Few adults have post-secondary education – just 9.2 percent.

These dismal statistics contribute to high levels of youth disconnection – a shocking 28 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working.

The results of our review are sobering. The Index data underscores the urgent need to put in place policies and programs that will level the playing field for residents of McDowell County and other places with zip codes saddled with high levels of poverty, youth disconnection and low education levels.

Jennifer Jordan

Jennifer D. Jordan is Opportunity Nation’s Senior Writer. She shares the campaign’s mission and accomplishments and those of its coalition with diverse audiences, seeking to heighten awareness about expanding economic mobility to more Americans. Read Jennifer's bio.

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