ACP Begins Work With NASA, University of Maryland

by Dante Chinni February 22, 2023

The community types of the American Communities Project were created by analyzing demographic data — items including age, race, income, and education — but the counties themselves are geographic entities and those physical locations matter. Some places are arid, some are rainy. Some are flat and largely empty, tailor-made for agriculture, others face unique environmental challenges.

To explore how those physical realities tie into demographic and cultural differences, the ACP is working with the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Department of Geographical Sciences on a grant from NASA’s Earth Science Applications: Equity and Environmental Justice program to examine how experiences of environmental distress over time interact with other socioeconomic challenges on tribal lands. The ACP/UMD team aims to identify how environmental justice (EJ) issues may contribute to social distress and premature mortality in American communities. The focus for the work will be Native American Lands communities in Montana.

The effort, which is being led by Dr. Julie Silva from the University of Maryland, springs from work the ACP did on Deaths of Despair and, in particular, that phenomenon in Native American Lands communities in Montana.

The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton coined the term “deaths of despair” to refer to premature mortality caused by suicide, alcohol, and drug use in America. They found these deaths to be steadily increasing since 1999 among middle-aged White Americans without a college degree, a stark contrast to declining mortality rates among Black and Hispanic Americans. But the ACP’s analysis of the data showed Native American communities in particular faced much higher than average Deaths of Despair since the epidemic grew in the 2000s. The chart below shows the Deaths of Despair across the community types in Montana from 1999–2018

With the new grant, the ACP and Silva’s team will combine publicly available Earth Science information (ESI) — environmental data from equipment such as remote sensors — with the socioeconomic data the ACP has gathered to find areas where environmental hardship may contribute to (and result from) forms of socioeconomic distress that are linked to Deaths of Despair in Native American Lands counties.

Those counties, in particular, are places where the ties between community, identity, and the natural environment are especially strong and where environmental justice challenges are many. However, as in other research on American Deaths of Despair, no environmental data was used in the ACP analysis, an omission the project aims to address.

The group will merge the environmental and socioeconomic data, looking for correlations and building visualizations to show potential impacts and areas needing further study. They will also compare the patterns and dynamics observed within and between Native American Lands as well as with other community types in the ACP typology.

The team will then go further, taking what they learn from that analysis out into the field in Native American Lands counties in Montana to see what those data look like in the real world and how the communities are addressing the challenges they face.

The project will further NASA’s goal to advance EJ in underserved American communities through the use of publicly available ESI by 1) enhancing existing methodologies to document environmental inequities and their impacts on human well-being and; 2) developing new insights into the dynamic intersections between EJ challenges and socioeconomic struggles. Collaborative efforts between social and Earth scientists and ACP journalists with an expertise in relaying complex information to non-technical audiences will enable the research team to communicate project findings to the general public. In addition to being published in academic journals, the project’s findings will appear on the ACP website as well as other outlets affiliated with project partners.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

Learn More