Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · May 12, 2004

Immigrants Outlive The Native-Born In California

Life Expectancies, Infant Mortality Differ Widely Among Racial, Ethnic Groups in State

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 12, 2004 — Most of California’s immigrants live longer than their native-born counterparts, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The Demographics of Mortality in California uses recently released data from the 2000 Census to create detailed measurements of the mortality rates and life expectancies of 19 racial and ethnic groups and subgroups – many of which have not been reliably estimated up until now. What emerges is a picture of significant disparity in death rates among Californians. The most extreme example? U.S.-born Chinese females outlive U.S.-born black males by an average of 20 years.

On average, immigrants in the state outlive natives by over four years, with life expectancies of 81.5 years compared to 77.4 years for U.S.-born residents. Moreover, when comparing specific racial and ethnic groups, the difference in life expectancies between foreign and native-born residents is over five years for blacks, three years for Latinos, and two years for whites. A closer look at countries of origin and gender reveals even greater differences for some of these groups. Among Latinos, for example, foreign-born Mexican men have life expectancies that are nearly five years longer than men of Mexican descent born in the United States.

The longer immigrant life expectancies are surprising. “These findings are counterintuitive because groups with higher incomes and greater access to health care and medical information generally have better health outcomes,” says PPIC research fellow Hans Johnson, who coauthored the study with PPIC research associate Joseph Hayes. “Many immigrants have fewer financial resources, do not have health insurance, and face difficulty obtaining health information because of language barriers.”

So why the difference? There are a number of possibilities, including immigrants eating more healthful diets, which lead to lower rates of obesity, and engaging in fewer risky behaviors such as smoking. There is also a possible “selection” effect that occurs. “The act of migrating internationally is a serious and often physically demanding proposition,” says Johnson. “It’s likely that people with health problems, or who are chronically ill, never make the move in the first place.”

The one exception to the foreign-born mortality advantage is among Asians: Native-born Asians have life expectancies that are over two years longer than those of their immigrant counterparts. Generally, Asians have longer life expectancies than any other racial or ethnic group in the state.

Across racial and ethnic groups, regardless of nativity, Asians and Latinos have relatively high life expectancies at 83 years and 80.5 years, respectively. White life expectancy, at 77.8 years, is close to the state average of 78.4 years. Blacks have the most alarming mortality rates, with life expectancies of 72.1 years – more than six years below the state average. Previous research has pointed to a variety of possible reasons for higher mortality rates among blacks: Compared to whites, they have lower quality health care, higher rates of obesity and smoking, and fewer have health insurance.

Additionally, infant mortality rates are higher among blacks than any other racial or ethnic group – nearly 13 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to approximately five deaths for whites and Latinos, and four deaths for Asians. Among Asian subgroups, however, rates of infant mortality vary tremendously: two deaths per 1,000 births for Japanese compared to 11 deaths for Laotians.

More Key Findings

  • Death before age 50 in California is unusual – 95 percent of residents survive to age 50, and 90 percent survive to age 60.
  • Latino male mortality is lower than that of white males – except at very young ages (5-9 years) due to accidents, and at older teen ages (15-19 years) due to homicide.
  • The longest life expectancy in the state is for Asian Indians (84.3 years), a stark contrast to another Asian group, Laotians, whose life expectancy is 75.3 years.
  • Women in California live almost five years longer than men – 80.8 years versus 76 years.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.