Placing Prosperity: Neighborhoods and Life Expectancy in the New Orleans Metro

Robert Habans Jenna Losh Rachel Weinstein Amy Teller

Published: Aug 13, 2020

Using a national source of data on life expectancy at the neighborhood level as a starting point, this report examines the role of place in shaping shared prosperity in the New Orleans region. Although the analysis reflects neighborhood health and economic inequality before the COVID-19 pandemic, the findings show how race, place, economic opportunity, and health outcomes have long remained inextricably linked.


There has been an intense spotlight on the links between systemic inequities, racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and disproportionate impacts on low-income people and communities of color. These patterns, of course, long predate the pandemic. In the New Orleans metro area, the fact that people’s chances to experience a long, healthy, and prosperous life are often implied by their neighborhood reflects enduring legacies of residential segregation and economic exclusion. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the sharp gaps in life expectancy that separate neighborhoods, whether from one end of the 8-parish region to the other or from just a few miles down the road.

Taking data on life expectancy at the neighborhood level as a "snapshot" of pre-pandemic health inequality, this three-part series of data briefs explores the causes and consequences of neighborhood differences in health and well-being over the life course. The analysis reveals how an uneven landscape of investment and socioeconomic opportunity shapes life expectancy, and shows that neighborhood inequality remains inextricable from racial inequality. Understanding the persistent links between health, economic opportunity, race, and place can help to inform the evolving COVID-19 response and, eventually, to propel a more equitable recovery.

With neighborhood life expectancy serving as the starting point and common thread, each of the three chapters dives into a different aspect of place-based inequality.

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Executive Summary

Placing Prosperity explores neighborhood inequality in New Orleans and across the 8-parish metro. Taking data on life expectancy at the neighborhood level as a focal point, the report explores the underlying patterns behind differences in neighborhood health and well-being, economic opportunity, and quality of life. Like numerous national studies, our analysis demonstrates that dramatic geographic differences in life expectancy are closely related to socioeconomic opportunity. Moreover, place-based inequality remains inextricable from racial inequality. While the data reflects conditions before COVID-19, the findings help to explain the uneven health and economic effects of the pandemic — and provide context for stakeholders looking to imagine a more equitable recovery.

Life expectancies vary dramatically across the New Orleans metro, sometimes even over the span of a few short miles. Why are there such large differences in life expectancy across neighborhoods in our region? Building on leading public health, social sciences, and economics research, the report examines mortality trends and their relationship to neighborhood conditions, the history of neighborhood inequality in the New Orleans metro area, and the implications for place-conscious, cross-sectoral approaches to reducing neighborhood inequality.

The analysis foregrounds patterns of inequality across neighborhoods rather than conditions in any single neighborhood. Here are some of the main findings:

National and local life expectancy and mortality trends

Racial disparities in mortality and life expectancy

Gaps in life expectancy across metros and within metros

Neighborhood conditions and durable inequality


Neighborhood inequality is a longstanding issue, and the historical legacy of segregation and uneven investment continues to shape the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on low-income people and communities of color today. For decades, the distinction between “people-based” and “place-based” policy has shaped responses to persistent neighborhood inequality in housing, health, economic development, and other outcomes. With increasing appreciation for the complexity of residential and neighborhood dynamics, as well as the connections between well-being and the underlying conditions of housing and labor markets, commentators have increasingly rejected the “zero-sum” choice between people and place prosperity.i Race, place, economic opportunity, and health outcomes remain inextricably linked.

i Alan Berube, “Policy to Help People and Help Places Is Not a Zero-Sum Game” (Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, 2019),; Robert J Sampson, “Neighbourhood Effects and Beyond: Explaining the Paradoxes of Inequality in the Changing American Metropolis,” Urban Studies 56, no. 1 (2019): 3–32.


This project is based upon work supported by the Urban Institute through funds provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Urban Institute or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.