Valley Voices

Study shows shocking crisis of ‘white death’ in Valley

Drugs including methamphetamine and cocaine are displayed during a news conference to announce the results of an investigation to disrupt and dismantle a Central Valley drug trafficking organization in Fresno.
Drugs including methamphetamine and cocaine are displayed during a news conference to announce the results of an investigation to disrupt and dismantle a Central Valley drug trafficking organization in Fresno. Fresno Bee File/2014

When we see a building consumed by flames, a horrible vehicle accident or any other tragedy unfold, we immediately call the proper authorities.

The vast majority of us doesn’t stand idly by and let these incidents go unreported. We can’t. It’s not how we’re wired.

The effect that chronic stress has on low-income people is just as much an emergency. Believe it: Chronic stress is a dangerous killer and is often the product of policies that decision-makers have created. These policies may not be as obvious as a burning building, but they are as lethal as any knife, gun or community catastrophe.

Reducing access to health care or weakening the health care safety net will have severe consequences across the nation, but the Central San Joaquin Valley may be hit the hardest, as this is a region that already suffers from deep poverty, high unemployment and skyrocketing drug use.

Simply put, now is not the time to rip away the safety net, especially for vulnerable populations.

Responding to national reports about the drop in life expectancy across the nation and the devastating impacts felt in poor communities as our government strips away what’s left of the social compact, The California Endowment teamed up with the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University to take a deeper look at California.

The data we found in the Central San Joaquin Valley was shocking. There is a crisis of white death in California’s Central Valley.

Across California, death rates among black, Hispanic and Asian adults ages 40-64 years have fallen by 16-20 percent since 1995. Among whites they have decreased by only 5 percent. In the four-county region of the San Joaquin Valley that we studied (Kings, Tulare, Fresno and Kern) white death rates have actually increased by 11 percent, from 637 to 708 deaths per 100,000 since 1995.

These white “deaths of despair” are largely preventable as they are being driven by suicide, accidental drug overdoses and alcohol abuse.

For example, in Fresno County, the rate at which middle-aged adults (ages 40-64 years) are dying from accidental drug poisoning has increased by 212.3 percent since the 1990s. In Kern County, it has increased 163.7 percent over the same period.

People are losing hope, and soon they may be losing their health-care safety net, but it’s probably not just the Central Valley. We expect that this crisis is a canary in a coal mine. Today it is the Central Valley; tomorrow it can be anywhere.

While whites in these counties are being greatly impacted, all rural communities in this area will suffer greatly, where Medi-Cal serves close to half of all residents. This fact mirrors national numbers that show similar participation rates in safety-net programs. The Central Valley is probably ground zero, but the blast will ripple outward.

This isn’t just a health-care story; it is a human crisis. It can be prevented and cured. The sad truth is that the current public policy debates in Washington, D.C., only serve to further stack the odds against our state’s most vulnerable residents.

Rather than dismantling our already fragile social compact, we need to do the exact opposite. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and begin the critical work of rebuilding it for everyone.

Dr. Anthony Iton is the Senior Vice President of Healthy Communities at The California Endowment. He oversees Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year, $1 billion comprehensive community initiative launched by The California Endowment in 2010.

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