Michigan's adverse health trends track along racial, poverty lines

If Michigan’s nearly 10 million residents received a collective physical exam, the result would be a mixed bag – and likely a frown from the doctor.

Michigan ranked 35th best among states in 2017 for a range of health metrics that include obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other health factors. The United Health Foundation, which compiles the annual rankings, considered Michigan the 28th healthiest state as recently as 2010.

In many cases, adverse health outcomes are tied to the broader social disease of poverty. Troubling health signs show up in everything from higher infant mortality to exposure to air pollution to the poisoning of Flint’s drinking water.

Infant Mortality

Michigan’s overall infant mortality rate of 6.8 per 1,000 births ranks 38th – meaning 37 states have a lower rate. The mortality rate for African-American infants in Michigan is nearly triple that of white infants. African Americans are twice as likely to die by age 1 than white infants.

Community outreach can make a difference. In 2017, the city of Detroit and Wayne State University launched a program to bring more resources to pregnant mothers in an effort to cut back on premature births and infant mortality.

Environmental Pollutants

Exposure to pollutants and toxins like lead often tracks along racial lines as well.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, African-American children and adults have three times the hospitalization rate for asthma than white children and adults. While triggers for asthma are complex, it is linked both to environmental pollutants such as car exhaust and industrial particulates and agents in the home. Many Detroit neighborhoods rank at the top in Michigan for exposure to airborne pollutants.

Related health and welfare coverage from our 2018 Michigan Issue Guide

In 2014, seven of the top 10 zip codes for unsafe lead levels in children under 6 years old in Michigan were in Detroit, in areas of high poverty that are largely black. The lead levels in are linked to older houses or apartments with traces of lead paint in and around the home.

Kids Count: Troubling Health Indicators for Children

Annual Kids Count reports have consistently shown Michigan children lagging peers in other states on key health and quality of life measures. Key statistics from the 2017 Michigan Kids Count report:

  • 22 percent of Michigan children (and 47 percent of African-American children) live in poverty.
  • 44 percent of Michigan families are one emergency away from financial crisis.
  • 37000 children in 2015 were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect – a 21 percent increase over 2009.
  • A quarter of Michigan toddlers are not fully immunized.
  • Michigan students lag peers in other states on a wide range of education measures.

Stubborn Drug Abuse Problems

Mirroring a crisis in much of the nation, Michigan is facing an epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose from opioids and heroin.

The rate of death from opioids other than heroin jumped by 54 percent between 2015 and 2016 and has more than tripled since 2012. In 2016, 11 million opioid prescriptions were filled – leaving Michigan among about a dozen states with more prescriptions than people.

Flint Water Crisis: A “Complete Failure of Government”

Michigan is still grappling with fallout from Flint’s water crisis, in which thousands of children were exposed to toxic levels of lead in drinking water. That stemmed from decisions made under state-ordered emergency management to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River without adequate controls to prevent lead from leaching from pipes into the water.

Experts say the water switch may also be tied to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in which 12 residents died. More than a dozen current and former city and state employees have been charged in connection to the crisis.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission called events in Flint a “complete failure of government” and said it was tied to systemic racism in a city with 40 percent of people below the poverty level.


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