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Well-being survey reveals racial divide

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:02 AM

The Washington region ranks first among the country's 10 largest metropolitan areas on an index that measures life expectancy, education and income, according to a report to be released Wednesday.

The region's top score is driven in large part by the high education and income levels of whites and Asian Americans living in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, the report says. Although some of the information underscores what is generally known about the area, the report by the American Human Development Project, an initiative of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Social Science Research Council, reveals some startling gaps in what it calls the building blocks of a good life.

White D.C. residents have the longest life expectancy of whites in any state, 83.1 years, the report says. That is 12 years longer than the life span, on average, for blacks in the city. The average life expectancy for blacks is 71, the lowest for blacks in any state. The average life expectancy for blacks in the District is about the same as what it was for the average American in the 1970s.

The index of well-being does not vary greatly among the top 10 metropolitan areas, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, a co-author of the report. The Washington region ranked first, followed by the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston areas.

In many cases, however, "there are enormous chasms when you pull the data apart," she said.

Those extremes are evident in the D.C. area. The District has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. And although the District has a high drop-out rate and low school enrollment for ages 3 to 24, "it's also a place that attracts people with high levels of education to high-paying jobs," she said.

"What pulls it way up in scale is the number of people who have a bachelor's degree or a professional degree," she said.

Nearly half of the people in the Washington region - about 47 percent - have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 41 percent in the No. 2-Boston region, according to the report.

The report tracked health, education and income in each state and the District, each of the 435 congressional districts, and each of the five major ethnic groups in every state, Burd-Sharps said.

"If you want to know whether we're making progress, you need to measure these things . . . which are as critical to stock market gyrations and all the money measures which we measure with great intensity," she said.

The authors ranked the congressional districts because they are linked to elected officials. "Their job is to make sure people are not dying premature deaths at huge rates," she said.

Three of the region's congressional districts - the 11th and 8th in affluent Northern Virginia and the 8th in Maryland, which includes high-income parts of Montgomery County - were among the top 10 districts in the United States, the report says.

With a median household income of $85,000, according to the latest census data, and an unemployment rate well below the national average, the Washington region is considered the most affluent in the country.

The report used an index that is a composite measure of three equally weighted indicators: median personal earnings, life expectancy, and school enrollment of those ages 3 to 24 and highest degree attained by adults 25 and older.

The authors used 2008 census data for education and earnings and calculated life expectancy using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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