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Long-Term Trends in Health, Welfare, and Economic Growth in the United States

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  • Dora L. Costa
  • Richard H. Steckel

Abstract

We present evidence showing that the course of economic growth and of health, as measured by stature, Body Mass Index (BMI), mortality rates, or the prevalence of chronic conditions, diverged in the nineteenth century and converged in the twentieth. To analyze the change in welfare resulting from changes in health, we estimate a Human Development Index and a Borda Ranking and we calculate Usher- adjusted incomes and the willingness to pay for a reduction in mortality risk. Prior to the Civil War the increase in income was insufficient to compensate for the decline in health, whereas improvements in health outpaced economic growth in the twentieth century. We identify numerous possible causes of the nineteenth century decline in health, including greater exposure to disease, hardship created by the Civil War, and rising inequality. Our evidence on trends in waist-hip ratio, BMI, and the prevalence of chronic conditions at older ages suggests that early life conditions may exert an impact on mortality and morbidity that is not manifest until older ages. The dramatic twentieth century improvement in early life conditions implies that cohorts who are now approaching their sixties will experience a much greater rate of increase in health and longevity than past generations.

Suggested Citation

  • Dora L. Costa & Richard H. Steckel, 1995. "Long-Term Trends in Health, Welfare, and Economic Growth in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0076, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0076
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Costa, Dora L., 1996. "Health and Labor Force Participation of Older Men, 1900–1991," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 56(01), pages 62-89, March.
    2. Steckel, Richard H., 1979. "Slave height profiles from coastwise manifests," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 16(4), pages 363-380, October.
    3. Samuel H. Preston & Michael R. Haines, 1991. "Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth-Century America," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number pres91-1.
    4. Lee, Chulhee, 1997. "Socioeconomic Background, Disease, and Mortality among Union Army Recruits: Implications for Economic and Demographic History," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 34(1), pages 27-55, January.
    5. Goldin, Claudia & Sokoloff, Kenneth, 1982. "Women, Children, and Industrialization in the Early Republic: Evidence from the Manufacturing Censuses," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 42(04), pages 741-774, December.
    6. Thomas J. Weiss, 1992. "U. S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860," NBER Chapters,in: American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, pages 19-78 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Komlos, John, 1987. "The Height and Weight of West Point Cadets: Dietary Change in Antebellum America," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 47(04), pages 897-927, December.
    8. Viscusi, W Kip, 1978. "Wealth Effects and Earnings Premiums for Job Hazards," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 60(3), pages 408-416, August.
    9. Roderick Floud & Kenneth Wachter & Annabel Gregory, 1990. "Height, Health, and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number flou90-1.
    10. Bartel, Ann & Taubman, Paul, 1979. "Health and Labor Market Success: The Role of Various Diseases," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 61(1), pages 1-8, February.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • N31 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • J11 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Demographic Trends, Macroeconomic Effects, and Forecasts

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