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The Poor and the Dead: Socioeconomic Status and Mortality in the U.S., 1850-1860


  • Joseph P. Ferrie


Despite the significant research on aggregate trends in mortality and physical stature in the middle of the nineteenth century, little evidence on the individual-level characteristics associated with premature mortality has been presented. This essay describes a new project that links individuals from the mortality schedules to the population schedules of the 1850 and 1860 federal population censuses. This makes it possible to assess the link between individual and household characteristics and the probability of dying. The results reveal a strong and negative relationship between household wealth and mortality in 1850 and 1860 and a somewhat weaker negative relationship between occupational status and mortality in 1850. The findings suggest that even when the U.S. population was largely rural and agricultural, changes in the distribution of income and wealth would have had a large impact on mortality rates and life expectancies. Urbanization merely exacerbated already existing disparities in mortality by socioeconomic status.

Suggested Citation

  • Joseph P. Ferrie, 2001. "The Poor and the Dead: Socioeconomic Status and Mortality in the U.S., 1850-1860," NBER Historical Working Papers 0135, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0135 Note: DAE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Steckel, Richard H., 1988. "The Health and Mortality of Women and Children, 1850–1860," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 48(02), pages 333-345, June.
    2. 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, January.
    3. James P. Smith, 1999. "Healthy Bodies and Thick Wallets: The Dual Relation between Health and Economic Status," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 13(2), pages 145-166, Spring.
    4. Robert W. Fogel, 1986. "Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings," NBER Chapters,in: Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pages 439-556 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Michael R. Haines & Lee A. Craig & Thomas Weiss, 2000. "Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0130, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Craig, Lee A & Palmquist, Raymond B & Weiss, Thomas, 1998. "Transportation Improvements and Land Values in the Antebellum United States: A Hedonic Approach," The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Springer, vol. 16(2), pages 173-189, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. William J. Collins & Melissa A. Thomasson, 2002. "Exploring the Racial Gap in Infant Mortality Rates, 1920-1970," Vanderbilt University Department of Economics Working Papers 0201, Vanderbilt University Department of Economics.
    2. Jason M. Fletcher & Jody L. Sindelar & Shintaro Yamaguchi, 2011. "Cumulative effects of job characteristics on health," Health Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(5), pages 553-570, May.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • N3 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy
    • I1 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health

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