Shortened Lives: Where You Live Matters

The "Shortened Lives: Where You Live Matters" project, produced by staff writers Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman, ran in 2009 as a four-part series on Dec. 6, Dec. 7, Dec. 13 and Dec. 14 in the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune. The series won the  White House Correspondents’ Association Edgar A. Poe Award, the National Association of Black Journalists Special Project Award, and the Best of the West, Project Reporting Award.  Links to all the stories in the series can be found at

Day 1 introduced readers to the concept of social determinants of health – in other words, how factors such as educational and job status, housing, transportation, neighborhood safety and the availability of resources like schools, parks and stores play a dominant role in influencing one's health. And disparities among communities in overall social status and resources reveal themselves in strikingly different rates of disease and life expectancies.

This view is a major departure from the common perception that good health is largely a function of the personal choices you exercise in what you eat, how much exercise you fit into a day and the amount of medical care you receive, along with some good luck in the genetic lottery.

Day 2 took a personal look at how these social conditions affect health. One profile subject was a 10-year-old boy with severe asthma living in an Oakland neighborhood bounded on three sides by freeways and adjacent to a major port visited by thousands of diesel trucks daily. A man with heart disease living in the rough Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond described his struggle to achieve a more healthful lifestyle, despite the lack of nearby grocery stores or safe places to exercises, and intermittent income since his heart condition made it impossible to continue his fulltime job.

On Day 3, Bohan and Kleffman turned their focus to the burgeoning movement to address social determinants of health, which some activists call unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Public health agencies in the two Northern California counties covered in the series, Alameda and Contra Costa, are national leaders in establishing innovative programs to address social determinants of health. One example is a "Time Bank" in one poor, crime-ridden Oakland ZIP code which lets neighbors swap services like gardening, cooking, babysitting or car repair. One of aim of these programs is bolstering community cohesiveness and thereby increasing the odds that previously divided neighbors will join together to advocate for more resources, or to fight blight and crime.

Day 4 focused on a little-discussed aspect of the Congressional health reform bills, which for the first time proposed federal funding to counter the social conditions that cause poor health. Examples include paying for guards at local parks, so families could safely gather. Or pay for initiatives to bring a grocery store into a neighborhood without one.

View the project at  this link.