Unhealthy and uninsured: Exploring racial differences in health and health insurance coverage using a life table approach


Millions of people in the United States do not have health insurance, and wide racial and ethnic disparities exist in coverage. Current research provides a limited description of this problem, focusing on the number or proportion of individuals without insurance at a single time point or for a short period. Moreover, the literature provides no sense of the joint risk of being uninsured and in need of medical care. In this article, we use a life table approach to calculate health- and insurance-specific life expectancies for whites and blacks, thereby providing estimates of the duration of exposure to different insurance and health states over a typical lifetime. We find that, on average, Americans can expect to spend well over a decade without health insurance during a typical lifetime and that 40% of these years are spent in less-healthy categories. Findings also reveal a significant racial gap: despite their shorter overall life expectancy, blacks have a longer uninsured life expectancy than whites, and this racial gap consists entirely of less-healthy years. Racial disparities in insurance coverage are thus likely more severe than indicated by previous research.

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Correspondence to James B. Kirby.

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The views in this article are those of the authors, and no official endorsement by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services is intended or should be inferred.

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Kirby, J.B., Kaneda, T. Unhealthy and uninsured: Exploring racial differences in health and health insurance coverage using a life table approach. Demography 47, 1035–1051 (2010) doi:10.1007/BF03213738

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  • Health Insurance
  • Life Table
  • Racial Difference
  • Health Insurance Coverage
  • Racial Disparity