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Opinion and Commentary from TMA

Texas Neighborhoods Worlds Apart in Life Expectancy

(Public Health) Permanent link


Sometimes, statistics make you wonder – especially when they don’t add up. 

The Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation last week issued a report comparing the life expectancy at birth of someone born in each of Texas’ 4,709 census tracts. The data came from the U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project, which is run by the National Center for Health Statistics. 

“Drive 15 minutes through the biggest counties in Texas and you can go from a neighborhood where people usually live more than 85 years to another where the average person dies before he or she is 65,” Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation, said in announcing the report. “These numbers should spark important conversations across the state on how we can all take action to address the non-medical, root causes of these dramatic differences in health.” 

Given the growing recognition of the importance of social determinants of health, I thought I’d dive into the report to find some good examples to share with you. I didn’t realize how deep that dive would become. 

After finding, creating, downloading, unzipping, and sorting dozens of Census Bureau files, I’m still scratching my head. Maybe, in general, the levels of poverty, educational attainment, and minority population are good indicators for life expectancy in Texas neighborhoods. But at the extremes? Not so much. 

I started here in Austin, with Travis County, since a map of the neighborhoods here makes some intuitive sense to me. To my surprise, among the county’s 217 census tracts, the one where residents can expect to live the longest is right next to the one with the lowest life expectancy. They’re both south and west of Austin, in and around the community of Oak Hill. 

Astoundingly, there’s a 20.3-year difference in expected length of life between these two areas. The life expectency for children born in census tract 19.15 is just 68.6 years. Just to the west, in census tract 19.08, it’s 88.9 years. Wow! 

I know South Austin pretty well. I’ve lived the past 30 years or so within 5 to 10 miles of both of these neighborhoods. I would have guessed that 19.15 is a little bit worse off than 19.08, but not by much, and these two areas are far from the best or worst – socioeconomically – in Travis County. Right? 

Answering that question required me to spend some time with the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder project and the searchable data it provides from the 2017 American Community Survey. Once you figure out how to ask for what you want, FactFinder is really quite amazing. 

Here’s what I found about those two Travis County census tracts:

  • In 19.08, where folks can expect to live 88.9 years, the median household income is $110,833, 86% of the population is white, 89.4% have health insurance, and 60.1% have a high school diploma or some college education.
  • In 19.15, where babies can expect to live to be just 68.6 years old, the median household income is $64,599, 81% of the population is white, 78.3% have health insurance, and 63.6% have a high school diploma or some college. 

So, OK, the 19.08 population is generally in better shape than the people in 19.15 – except for education levels. But 26 of Travis County’s census tracts have higher median household income than in 19.08, and 99 tracts have lower income than in 19.15. Those trends hold for the other key variables: one tract is in the top decile or quartile, and the other is in the bottom group. But both are far from the extreme ends. 

So how do these two areas compare to the other 4,707 census tracts in Texas? When it came to life expectancy, they were in the top and bottom 1%, but they were again quite ordinary when I looked at the social determinants of health that supposedly drive length of life. 

More travels through the Census Bureau rabbit holes led me to these rather confounding findings:

  • The neighborhood where babies can expect to live the longest – 89.7 years – is right on the border with Mexico, in Hidalgo County, in the middle of the city of Weslaco.
  • We know that the Rio Grande Valley in general, and Hidalgo County in particular, are some of the poorest places in the country. By those standards, Weslaco is maybe a bit better off. The median annual household income in the neighborhood with the longest life expectancy is $37,257; for the county as a whole, it’s about $400 less. But for all of Texas, median household income in 2017 was more than double that: $70,136.
  • If you sort all of the state’s census tracts by life expectancy from highest to lowest, Hidalgo County again stands out – at the high end. Five of the 25 Texas tracts where babies born live the longest are in impoverished Hidalgo County. Only Harris County, home to Houston, has as many, and that’s likely a statistical anomaly driven by Harris County’s immense size and diversity.
  • At the other end, the lowest life expectancy in Texas falls to babies born in census tract 102, which is smack-dab in the middle of Wichita Falls. That’s a rather poor neighborhood (median household income is $19,406), but certainly not the poorest in the state. In fact, household income is lower in 51 other census tracts.
  • By the way, the poorest census tract in the entire state? It’s nearly across the street from where I’m sitting now and encompasses The University of Texas at Austin campus. The Census Bureau says median household income there is just $8,975 a year. And the life expectancy for a baby born in the shadow of the UT Tower? Not listed. 

If you’ve made it this far with me, I owe you some concluding remarks. 

First, the Census Bureau has amazingly detailed amounts of data and statistics about Americans, broken down into some of the tiniest slices, and it’s really pretty easy to navigate. 

Second, statistical analysis of population groups may be well suited to looking at data about groups of groups – e.g., how do income or educational level compare with life expectency for each 10% slice of the state’s census tracts? Looking at the individual neighborhoods at the extreme ends of this list leads you to … well, to not much at all other than a handful of large Census Bureau spreadsheets. 

Finally, if you’re going to put a statistical report through a does-this-make-sense test, start with some examples that mesh with your personal experience and intuitive knowledge. (If life expectancy in Travis County had shown up as lowest in parts of East Austin and highest in Northwest Hills – which is what I would have expected – I probably would have stopped right there. And maybe you wish I had.)