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Editorial: Buffalo's public health crisis

Being black in Erie County means you can expect to live five fewer years than someone who is white.

That sobering statistic, reported last week in The News, is among several health disparities between black and white residents that in Buffalo largely align with differences in income. Health inequities represent a complex and multilayered problem with few easy answers.

It is an important issue to take on, and good people are doing just that. The formation of the African American Health Disparities Task Force is a worthy project.  The issue cuts across many different spheres, including income inequality, nutrition, physical fitness, psychology and the availability of medical care, just to name a few.

The Rev. George F. Nicholas, pastor at Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, is a driving force behind the task force, which has made impressive progress. Other civic leaders, health care executives, and the University at Buffalo and Erie County Medical Center have joined the effort. And the task force last month won a $790,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to improve health outcomes and reduce chronic disease in five predominantly African American ZIP codes.

There are no quick fixes here. When Erie County was in the depths of an opioid crisis in 2016, with the death toll mounting, County Executive Mark Poloncarz declared a public health emergency and the county formed an Opioid Task Force. The task force has been credited, deservedly, with helping to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths in the county.

The health disparities among races here is no less a matter of life and death, but it’s a problem that can’t be treated with triage. There is no equivalent of administering Suboxone, the drug that has saved the lives of many individuals who have overdosed on opioids. Improving life expectancy is, necessarily and frustratingly, slower moving.

Raj Chetty is a Harvard University economist who has devoted the past few years to analyzing income inequality and its effects. In 2016, Chetty worked at Stanford, where he was the lead author on a study about the correlation between life expectancy, income inequality and geography.

Using data from 2001-2014, the study linked high incomes to longevity. Nationally, the richest American men lived 15 years longer than the poorest men, while the differential for women was 10 years. For poor Americans, where they lived had a strong effect on how long they lived.

Chetty’s study, published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, broke down data by counties across the United States. It found that in Erie County, a sizable gap divided the rich from the poor. The rich – defined as living in households making more than $100,000 per year – would live about seven years longer than the poor. People in Buffalo’s poorest ZIP codes have the same life expectancy as residents of developing countries such as Myanmar.

One of Chetty’s conclusions was that people’s behaviors – smoking, eating and exercising – have a greater impact on life expectancy than access to high-quality health care, though that certainly should not be discounted.

Getting people to change their habits is not easy. Nor is solving the problems of food deserts and other facts of life in the poorest districts. Solutions will be piecemeal, made neighborhood by neighborhood. That’s one reason why the Rev. Nicholas’ leadership is important. Nicholas is a respected member of the African American community here and can use his pulpit to reach and inspire people.

The primary cause of the gaps in life expectancy is poverty. A number of government-aligned agencies are working to alleviate the effects of poverty. Empowering people to live longer, healthier lives would make our community stronger. The African American Health Disparities Task Force is a welcome addition to that effort.

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