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Pam Ebert
Sep 25, 2012

Under-educated White People Are Dying Early

I recently became aware of a new study, published last month in Health Affairs and reported on September 20 in the New York Times that discussed the decrease in life-spans for the least-educated whites in the United States.
The journal article, which was written by Olshansky et al. (2012), posits that the disparity in life expectancy is becoming larger in respect to race and educational attainment. This all means that poor and/or uneducated white people are catching up with other minorities in terms of early death.

Consider the following data about how this impacts the Appalachian region;
1). In Appalachia, 76.8% of people graduate from high school or get a GED. Conversely, 23.2% of Appalachians do not earn a high school diploma or GED.
2). According to the 2000 census, 88% of persons living in the Appalachian region are white.

What that means to me is that as a counselor, I had better become aware of how I can help. In my county, which is 95.8% white and 14.7%, have not graduated from high school or gotten their GED, this is one issue that I have not seen to be addressed by local agencies or government. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there is a natural gas drilling boom currently happening in my area and so, in my opinion, much less attention is being paid to the needs of the poor and/or uneducated and a report in a journal about decreased life-spans for white people will be of little notice to most.

My work currently consists of private practice in Lisbon and part-time crisis counseling in a regional ER and so I rarely come into extended professional contact with people from my own county who fit into this uneducated, white demographic. I do, however, often meet and have contact with the aforementioned uneducated white folks in my community and can see clearly some of the issues that can come into play related to premature deaths. Prescription drug abuse is rampant in Columbiana County, as is tobacco use and lack of health care insurance. These combined with a reluctance to seek medical and dental care when needed result in factors that may account for a decrease in life-span.

I have three, competing thoughts on this matter. The first is that with all the money that is pouring into my county, is anyone funneling some of it towards agencies that assist people with educational and health care needs? The second is if Columbiana County is getting richer as a whole, in the future will the poor be shuffled aside and “priced out” of housing and lose the social services that are now available? Thirdly, what social justice and counseling actions could be taken to increase life expectancies for all minorities in the Appalachian region?
One suggestion that addresses specifically how counselors can help came from an associate in the world of social justice counseling. A member of the listserv CESNET has proposed in a recent post that counselors should implement the idea of wellness and health care more thoroughly into their work with the uneducated Caucasian population. I believe this to be necessary in combating decreased life expectancy for all segments of society, but the question arises about how to go about this when other more pressing issues are evident.

One thing that is clearly evident in my community is that when I see two adults of the same age, attaining a higher level of education (which often means getting SOME post-high school education or technical training) equals better health. I don’t need health and mortality statistics to inform my opinion about this because a person’s living status is easily observed visually. When I look at, let’s say, two sixty-three year old women, the less educated of the two often will have fewer teeth, more wrinkles, be less physically spry and have more physical ailments. Oh, and now we have proof that they die earlier.

What does this say about society in America, given that this is not just a problem for the Appalachian region, but for the whole country? I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that in this country there is just no excuse for things to be this way. I’d like to think that as a nation we are better than indicated by the report, but maybe that just isn’t so.

Then again, this is just my opinion. I may be wrong.

Pam Ebert is a counselor in private practice while completing her doctoral work. She has a special interest in both rural and Appalachian cultures and how they pertain to the world of counseling.

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