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During a June 12 speech at George Washington University, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders offered what he said was a stark example of income inequality and its real-world consequences.
"In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years."
Was Sanders right? We took a closer look. (Sanders’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)
Let’s start by noting that the two counties are indeed at opposite ends of the income spectrum.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, McDowell County, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, has a median household income of $25,595, about 44 percent of the national median household income of $57,652.
By contrast, Fairfax County, located in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a median household income of $117,515, or slightly more than double the national median.
So median household income is more than four times higher in Fairfax County than it is in McDowell County.
What about life expectancy?
The longest-running data on life expectancy by county in the United States is compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. We used the institute’s interactive database to find the most recent data for both of the counties Sanders mentioned.
Here’s a summary for 2014, the most recent year available:
The data shows that life expectancy is a few years longer than Sanders said for men in McDowell County — 67 instead of 64 — which in turn makes the gap for men between the two counties 15 years, rather than the 18-year figure Sanders cited.
For women, Sanders also is slightly off — there’s an 11-year gap rather than a 12-year gap.
But while Sanders is a bit off on the numbers, his overall point is sound. In fact, not only can people in Fairfax County expect to live longer than those in McDowell County, but the gap between the two has been widening for nearly four decades.
This chart shows life expectancy for men, women, and both in the two counties since 1980. Figures for McDowell County are shown in red, and figures for Fairfax County are shown in green. It’s easy to see the trend lines going in opposite directions.
It appears that Sanders’ comparison actually emerged more than five years ago, in a New York Times article by Annie Lowrey. She wrote:
Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. …
One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. 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. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.
Sanders said, "In 2014 ... in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18 year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years."
A few of these numbers are slightly off, but Sanders’ overall point that there is a large gap in life expectancy between the two counties is solid. We rule his statement Mostly True.
Bernie Sanders, speech at George Washington University, June 12, 2019
U.S. Census Bureau, American FactFinder, accessed July 17, 2019
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, "Life Expectancy And Mortality Risk by County 1980-2014 (Annual): National, Individual States, and District of Columbia," accessed July 17, 2019
Vox.com, "What the dip in US life expectancy is really about: inequality," Nov. 30, 2018
New York Times, "Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap," March 15, 2014
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