Hispanic, Black, and Asian Californians Saw Disproportionately Large Drops in Life Expectancy During COVID Pandemic
Study shows stark differences in life expectancy loss between Californians living in high- and low-income areas during the COVID-19 pandemic
The life expectancy of Californians has decreased by about three years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)-affiliated researchers and colleagues published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.1
The research shows that life expectancies for Hispanic, Black, and Asian Californians decreased more than for white Californians (see Figure 1). Hispanic populations in California lost 5.7 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2021, while Black populations lost 3.8 years, Asian populations lost 3.0 years, and white populations lost 1.9 years, according to the study led by Hannes Schwandt, a Northwestern University professor and NBER affiliate.
FIGURE 1. Latino, Black, and Asian Californians Saw Significant Drops in Life Expectancy During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Change in Life Expectancy (in Years) in California by Race/Ethnicity, 2019-2021
Note: Black, Asian, and white categories are non-Hispanic.
Source: Hannes Schwandt et al., “Changes in the Relationship Between Income and Life Expectancy Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, California, 2015-2021,” JAMA 328, no. 4 (2022): 360-66, doi:10.1001/jama.2022.10952.
“In California, Hispanic individuals have historically lived longer than white individuals, but the pandemic upended that, as the life expectancy for Hispanic Californians decreased by about six years, three times as high as the decline for white Californians,” said co-author Jonathan Kowarski, a University of California, Los Angeles doctoral student in economics.
The study also found that life expectancy for those living in the lowest-income census tracts fell by nearly five years between 2019 and 2021 (from 75.9 to 71.1 years) compared with less than one year for those living in the highest-income census tracts (from 87.4 to 86.6 years) (see Figure 2). The gap in life expectancies between the two groups grew, from a difference of about 11.5 years before the pandemic to more than 15 years in 2021. During this time, income also became more tightly correlated with life expectancy than it had been previously.
FIGURE 2. Low-Income Neighborhoods in California Saw Significant Drops in Life Expectancy During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Change in Life Expectancy Since 2019 (in Years) in California Census Tracts With Lowest and Highest Median Household Incomes
Source: Schwandt et al., “Changes in the Relationship Between Income and Life Expectancy Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, California, 2015-2021,” JAMA 328, no. 4 (2022): 360-66.
“We’ve had indications that the pandemic affected economically disadvantaged people more strongly, but we never really had numbers on actual life expectancy loss across the income spectrum,” said Schwandt. “I am shocked by how big the differences were and the degree of inequality that they reflected.”
In their analysis of 1.9 million deaths in California between 2015 and 2021, the research team calculated that life expectancy for Californians fell from 81.4 years in 2019 to 79.2 years in 2020, and down to 78.4 years in 2021. This study demonstrates that the reduction in life expectancy continued from 2020 into 2021, despite the availability of vaccines for much of 2021.
Life expectancy is not the average life span of individuals in a society, but a hypothetical measure based solely on the mortality rates observed in a given year. It estimates how long a cohort of newborns could expect to live if it experienced the mortality rates of that specific year throughout their entire lifetimes.
In the current study, life expectancy captures how much life was lost collectively within a population during the pandemic years, and it illustrates the dramatic differences in the pandemic’s impact across communities of different socioeconomic status.
“Our results highlight the disproportionate burden the pandemic placed on low-income people and people of color,” said study co-author Janet Currie, a Princeton University professor and NBER affiliate.
The study is based on an analysis of restricted death data obtained from the California Comprehensive Death Files maintained by the California Department of Health.
“Our findings are another troubling sign of how the pandemic’s impact was not felt evenly across all communities,” said study co-author Till von Wachter, a UCLA professor and NBER affiliate. “Policymakers can use these findings to craft a more equitable response now and also to inform how we plan for future public health crises.”
This article is based on pieces written by Sean Coffey of the California Policy Lab and Max Witynski of Northwestern University.
1 Hannes Schwandt et al., “Changes in the Relationship Between Income and Life Expectancy Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, California, 2015-2021,” Journal of the American Medical Association 328 no. 4 (2022): 360-66, doi:10.1001/jama.2022.10952.