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Are White Women Harder Hit By Poverty?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we'll hear what you had to say about some of the stories we covered this week. That's Back Talk and that's in just a few minutes. First though, the issues of war and peace have been at the forefront this week. Now we want to talk about a different kind of war, one that started decades ago here in the U.S. We're talking about the war on poverty. Next week marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty, but poverty remains a problem in the U.S. And one group that's being affected by poverty in a way you might not expect is white women.

At a time when life expectancy is rising for most Americans, the life expectancy of less educated white women, that is to say women who drop out of high school, is five years less than it was in 1990. Monica Potts recently wrote about this. Her article "What's Killing Poor White Women?" is in the current issue of the American Prospect and she's with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

MONICA POTTS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You say that it is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine.

POTTS: That's right. By and large you see people slowly gaining life expectancy over time. And that's because every year that passes, we learn more about health and we learn more about life, about how to extend it. Most of the time, when you see a five-year drop or something of that magnitude, it means there was a war or an influenza that affected young people.

MARTIN: But that's not the case here.

POTTS: No, they really can't point to any one thing. No one knows why it's causing it and it's really caused a lot of other research to come to the fore about it because there's no easy explanation for such a big drop.

MARTIN: Well, that is obviously the question that I'm going to ask you. Are there any clues?

POTTS: Well, you know, I talked to a lot of people and one of the things that has happened in the past 18 years is that life has become a lot harder for people who live in poverty and a lot harder for people who don't have education. So the jobs available to people without high school educations, across the board, are really, really slim. And so that means they're isolated from the social communities, job spring. They're isolated from the income. They're isolated from, you know, learning about things that might improve their health. And they're isolated from people who aren't their families. And so the real question is why would anything like that be falling on white women harder?

MARTIN: Well, that's the question, though, Because when you talk about the whole question of being less educated, having less access to health care and things of that sort, I think most people think of racial minorities. I think they think of black women, Latina women and Native American women, particularly Native American women living on reservations. But the data suggests that being a poor, white woman decreases your life expectancy in contrast to those other groups.

POTTS: At least right now.

MARTIN: At least right now. Why might that be? I mean, is there something in the experience of being a poor, white woman - contrast that to say a poor, African-American woman - that might account for this decrease in life expectancy?

POTTS: You know, I talked to a lot of people about that too. And there must be something about the way those groups handle the chronic stressors that being poor and that being without access to, you know, communities that talk about health and encourage healthy behavior, and also being isolated from jobs and the kind of self-actualization that having a career that you're proud of can bring.

And so I'm not a hundred percent sure about what it is among white communities, but I spent time in rural Arkansas for this piece. And one thing that's really true is that you don't hear these women talking about the act of raising their family as a job that they're proud of.

And you don't hear them talking about the act of being a wife as anything other than survival. And you don't hear them talking about the need for a job so that they can feel happy about the direction that their life is taking. It's very strongly a patriarchal area and they very much think it's their job to be a wife and mother and take care of other people. And they're not taking care of themselves. I don't think that that's only true for this community, but perhaps it's especially true for this community.

MARTIN: You told the story, as many journalists do, by focusing on one particular person as a way to tell the bigger story. And the person that you profiled in depth was a woman named Crystal. And you say that everything about Crystal's life was ordinary except for her death. She died at the age of 38. Tell us about her.

POTTS: She was a good student when she was young. She enjoyed school. She really enjoyed sports and she was very active. She became involved with a much older man when she was 16 years old and she got married to him and dropped out of high school. And the rest of her life was taking care of him. He became ill very early. He had an accident on the job when he was pretty young himself.

And she became a mother. She struggled to become a mother, but when she finally had her daughter, she really lived her life for her. And there's really no sense that she thought about what she could do for her own life or that she ever worried about her own health. And she was really young when she died and there's some sense that she may have been diagnosed with diabetes, but they don't really know when or why.

MARTIN: But she also seemed happy, integrated. I mean, she had her grandchild, whom she was crazy about. She was connected to family.

POTTS: Well, and then her family started to also die young, partly from smoking. But Crystal didn't smoke. Crystal didn't do drugs, which a lot of people thought would be the obvious explanation, is the rise of meth in areas like this. The use of meth among white women has been growing, but it hasn't been growing so much that it would explain this entire drop. And she also got, I think, lonely and depressed towards the end of her life. Her daughter had had a baby herself at 17 and spent half the time with her boyfriend's family. Her husband was getting sick and it was clear, closer to death, a lot of her older siblings were dying, but they weren't very old when they died from smoking-related diseases. And so it seems that she just got really lonely and she didn't have other, non-family communities to talk to or spend time with.

MARTIN: Is this phenomenon of the decrease in the life expectancy of less-educated, white women something that has caught the attention of public health authorities? Is there some group of people who are talking about this and bringing this into the public sphere?

POTTS: Not from the advocacy side, I don't think. You know, this is pretty new finding. I think health researchers are still trying to figure out what it is. It's absolutely true that a lot of groups in America are disadvantaged and need public health interventions, but it's not clear that we're making any strides in any kind of way in communities across the country because, partly, inequality is so large and I think inequality is really the root cause of it.

But, you know, when you spend time in poor, white communities, and I've done that a few times now, they tend not to think of themselves as poor and disadvantaged. And maybe that is a downside. Maybe they should think about what they can do to get together and improve their communities, improve life for women there and improve life for, you know, all kids there. One of the women I talked to was a teacher in the school of the daughter - Crystal's daughter. And she was very cognizant that, you know, there wasn't really a sense that people talk about how to make the next generation's life better. Maybe that level of cognizance is what these communities need.

MARTIN: Monica Potts writes for the American Prospect. Her article about white women in poverty is in its latest issue. It's titled "What's Killing Poor White Women?" And she was kind enough to join us at our studios in Washington, D.C. Monica Potts, thanks so much for joining us.

POTTS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.