Evanston Health Department uncovers health inequities in 5th Ward

Courtesy of Leeks Lim

A study by the Evanston Health Department reveals that life expectancy in the 5th Ward is five to 13 years shorter than in other wards.

A health assessment in July found that residents of the historically black 5th Ward have a life expectancy five to 13 years shorter than residents of local predominantly white neighborhoods.

Every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services conducts the Evanston Process for Local Needs Assessment (EPLAN) to holistically examine the city’s health and plan for specific areas that need improvement.

Health Department community health specialist Kristin Meyer led the study and said the data was collected based on census tracts rather than by neighborhood. Census tracts are small subdivisions of the county used to collect census data.

Evanston currently has 19 census tracts as of 2020, one tract closely matching the 5th Ward. The tract had a life expectancy of 75.5 years, compared to 88.8 years in the tract roughly representing the 7th Ward.

“If you just looked at the average life expectancy (of Evanston), it would be higher than the American average,” Meyer said. “But when you start digging by geography, race and ethnicity, we see a really different picture emerge.”

Meyer said the study highlights a pattern of wealth and privilege concentrated among non-Latin white populations in the northern and eastern parts of Evanston. She said Western Evanston has economic and health disadvantages, particularly in the 5th Ward, which has been historically highlighted.

The director of community leadership at the Evanston Community Foundation, Karli Butler, said she and others were shocked when they first heard of the study results during a data walk organized by the city and Evanston Cradle to Career.

“You could hear people like, ‘Wow.’ There were reactions of, ‘This is terrible,'” Butler said. “There was a sense of urgency to fix this. It’s not right, it’s really upsetting.

The health department has held several focus groups, data walks and other community forums to receive public feedback on the data since it was released. Meyer said the health department has also partnered with the ECF over the past few months, to hear what people think is needed to improve health and wellness across the city.

While Meyer said the Department of Health and Human Services is reaching out to the whole community, she said it is focused on soliciting input from the 5th Ward.

“Because the findings are about disproportionate harm, (5th Ward residents) must be at the center of imagining solutions,” Meyer said. “They are the experts on the problem because they live it, so it was our responsibility to bring the data to them so they could own their own narrative.”

The Department of Health has identified three overarching priorities to help address these disparities.

The first priority is mental and emotional well-being, which Meyer says must include acknowledging the collective trauma resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the upsurge in communal violence seen in recent years.

The second is climate resilience, recognizing that the climate crisis is a public health issue and its disproportionate impact on people with low incomes, disabilities or experiencing housing insecurity.

“A big takeaway from this report is how much the environment and community around us shape our health,” Meyer said. “Our choices are shaped by the resources we have access to and those resources are different depending on our income.”

Racial inequality is the third priority. Aldus. Bobby Burns (5th) told The Daily that health inequalities and income inequalities have long been correlated with race.

Burns said he’s glad the public data from the assessment is making people aware of these disparities.

“It’s an important time for change because people are alert and ready to make a difference,” Burns said. “We have an opportunity to seize and create the kind of change that we have needed for some time now.”

Meyer said Health and Human Services plans to make a record of some of EPLAN’s findings, particularly linking patterns of health inequality to the Evanston redlining story, in the coming months.

She added that the hope is to disseminate the results more widely, beyond attendees at city-sponsored meetings.

“The problem of desegregation doesn’t just live in the past,” Meyer said. “When you drill down to the neighborhood level, we see these patterns where health falls on these geographic and racial lines, so this presentation will try to tell that story.”

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Twitter: @ellajeffriess

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