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In St. Louis Area, A Short Distance Can Make A Big Difference

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Jason Purnell, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the lead author of a report on the well-being of African-Americans around St. Louis, which found the quality of life varied widely by location.


Ferguson has been described as a powder keg in search of a match. The events of the past week are terribly sad, but perhaps not surprising given the town's history of white flight and increasing poverty. Earlier this week, I spoke to Jason Purnell of Washington University in St. Louis. He's lead author of a report on the health and well-being of African-Americans in and around St. Louis that showed ZIP code trumps genetic code in determining the quality and length of their lives.

JASON PURNELL: The largest difference we found between ZIP codes was between 63106, which is in North St. Louis City, and the 63105, which is in a suburb called Clayton. And there was an 18-year difference in life expectancy. And that's a difference, in terms of distance, of under 10 miles. 63106 would be predominately African-American, a high proportion of low income households, an unemployment rate that would be much higher. The suburb of Clayton is ranked among some of the wealthiest municipalities in the country - high home values, predominantly white, the level of access to resources like fresh fruits and vegetables. Just basic human needs are not evenly distributed.

VIGELAND: Well, and, in fact, I read an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Michael Brown's life expectancy was 15 years less than it would've been had he lived just a ZIP code or two away. Is that true? And do you think that would be true of other urban areas as well?

PURNELL: It's definitely true of other urban areas. The ZIP code where Ferguson is located, 77 years was the life expectancy. Still a gap, still lower than some of the longer-lived ZIP codes in the region, but a better picture, which complicates this narrative that's been put out about Ferguson. It's certainly not the most distressed or disadvantaged portion of our region, but there are still those disparities there.

VIGELAND: This study was released earlier this year to coincide with the anniversaries of both Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of segregation in this area that you studied?

PURNELL: What we have in St. Louis is a history of exclusion of African-Americans by both practice and policy. Restrictive deep covenants were a practice in St. Louis where neighbors would come together and agreed not to sell property to African-Americans. Some of the rhetoric around African-Americans moving into neighborhoods as part of the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North really had some frightening metaphors in terms of this contagion, this sickness that would overtake properties. Segregation has implications for the economic viability of St. Louis.

VIGELAND: Was there anything that surprised you in this study?

PURNELL: I think the surprise for me was more that we are still dealing with the issues as a country that many people thought we had overcome. The thing that troubles me is that so many children are growing up without opportunities and those resources. And that's what drives me in doing this research. I really want to change the paradigm in this region from viewing children in disinvested under-resourced areas as problems to viewing them as resources to be invested in. And every one of our recommendations is about steps that we can take to improve the health of the entire community.

VIGELAND: Jason Purnell is an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the authors of the report "For The Sake Of All." Thank you.

PURNELL: I appreciate it. Thank you.

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