Solving the Hispanic Mortality Paradox

Why do Hispanics die at slower rates than non-Hispanic whites in the United States?
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A 2012 Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Texas Military Forces/Flickr)

A 2012 Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Texas Military Forces/Flickr)

Data analysis often suffers from a tyranny of geography. When measuring the human condition, we ignore the human condition. Instead, we track how a place fares. "Place" requires space and people to populate it, whether remotely (like folktales) or boots on the ground. Therefore, any geographic unit of analysis is inherently subjective. Who measures matters more than what is measured. Unfortunately, convention accepts geography as objective. Any map is what God sees.

When concerned about an issue such as poverty, place comes first. Social scientists show how a neighborhood or a nation-state lags behind other places. Then a researcher might link poor places with a certain race or ethnicity. African Americans concentrate in struggling areas in greater numbers than overall demographics would suggest. The resident, the person, becomes where they live. God sees a human as poor because of where she or he lives.

Conversely, a social scientist could conduct a longitudinal analysis and track how a person fares in different places. The human condition, not place, becomes central to the study. Comparing people who stay in place to those who migrate should be a no-no. It isn't:

It’s called the Hispanic mortality paradox. In the United States, Hispanics die at slower rates than non-Hispanic whites. This is true even before accounting for differences in incomes and health-care access, which put Hispanics at a disadvantage.

One of the first people to point that out was Kyriacos Markides, a professor at the University of Maine who noted in a 1986 paper that Hispanics in the Southwest were remarkably healthy. Compared to whites, they had lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, and lower rates of infant mortality. The “accumulating evidence,” he wrote, “suggests that the health of Hispanics is much closer to that of other whites than to the health of blacks, with whom Hispanics share socioeconomic conditions.”

Why? Markides speculated that Hispanic culture may have some protective effect. Tight-knit families and immigrant communities offer crucial support to people battling illnesses. Hispanics, especially recent immigrants, also tend to behave in more healthy ways, smoking and drinking less. This may explain why second- and third-generation Hispanics, who are more plugged into the mainstream culture, see less of a boost to their health.

Hispanics, especially recent immigrants, also tend to behave in more healthy ways, smoking and drinking less. Paradox no more. What we have is a classic case of comparing apples to oranges. The socioeconomic conditions of immigrants bear no relation to the domestic population. Poor in the United States might be affluent and well-educated in El Salvador. Furthermore, the step from Latin America to the United States is decidedly up for Hispanic immigrants.

The Hispanic mobility paradigm dispels the Hispanic mortality paradox. No geographic mobility between nation-states, as evidenced by second- and third-generation Hispanics converging with the rest of the domestic population, no death rate dividend. People develop, not places.

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