Inequality of Wealth. Inequality of Health.

The biological effects of wealth disparity

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By Peter Turchin

Three years ago I published an essay on the biological effects of wealth disparity titled Inequality of Wealth. Inequality of Health, which is reproduced below. It discusses the new (at the time) data on falling life expectancy of least-educated whites.

Since then we’ve seen more data and analyses that indicate that various segments of the American population are losing ground. A new analysis by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed that mortality rates for white Americans aged 45–54 have risen since 1999. Unlike three years ago, when the news about falling life expectancies were not explicitly connected to rising inequality (see my 2012 post below), now the connection is routinely made, for example, by Joseph Stiglitz.

And the biological effects of inequality are not limited to increasing mortality. There is also an effect on the average population height. Two hundred years ago the Americans were the tallest nation on Earth. Today it’s not true. Worse, not only the average stature in the US is stagnating, shockingly, for some segments of the population it is decreasing. Here’s a graph based on the data in a 2010 article by John Komlos The recent decline in the height of African-American women:


Because terminal height is largely determined during the first 20 years of life, I plot the data by year of birth plus 10 years, the midpoint of the 20-year interval.

As you can see, the average height of black women has declined since the late 1970s.

So, the life expectancy of white middle-aged males has declined, and the average height of black women has also declined. Is this the beginning of a more broadly based trend, in which the biological well-being of the “other half”—the 50 percent of the poorer Americans—will decline?

Inequality of Wealth. Inequality of Health

Two interesting news were reported this week. Forbes Magazine reported that the net worth of the wealthiest 400 Americans increased by 13 percent compared to last year. This is hardly surprising, since the magnitude of the top fortunes have been growing rapidly over the last 30 years.

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The second news, reported by New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernise, is “Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the U.S.” The real shocker is the magnitude of the shrinkage: between 1990 and 2008 the life expectancy of white women without a high school diploma declined by five years. At the same time white men who dropped out of high school lost three years of life. And we are not talking about a tiny group – Americans without a high school diploma constitute 12 percent of  the population.

Are these two developments related? As far as I have seen most media reported them separately without making a connection. Tavernise, for example, discusses several possible explanations, but never comes to a conclusion. As she reports, “researchers offered theories for the drop in life expectancy, but cautioned that none could fully explain it.”

There are a multitude of possible proximate mechanisms explaining this drop in life expectancy (and Tavernise discusses many of them: more risky behaviors, overdoses from prescription drugs, smoking, less access to health care). But I would argue that the ultimate mechanism has to do with the growth of inequality in America over the last 30 years. So the two news stories are actually related. Incidentally, Tavernise never mentions the word ‘inequality.’

Inequality can take many forms. One is ‘categorical inequality,’ such as the discrimination on the basis of race or gender. This kind of inequality has been declining in the U.S. (although there is still much room for improvement). But at the same time different kinds of inequality, ‘quantitative’ rather than categorical, have been increasing.

One example is inequality in health, which could be measured by a variety of proxies, such as life expectancy. Life expectancy of the least educated white men is currently 67.5 years, while for men with a college degree or better it is 80.4 years. That is a gap of nearly 13 years. For white women the gap is just over 10 years. This is a really huge difference.

Another kind of ‘quantitative’ inequality is that of income or wealth. These two kinds of economic inequality are related. Clearly, one can acquire a great wealth only by enjoying large incomes (typically, over a number of years). Large wealth is also a source of income, when it is invested (and large fortunes always are). Because wealth and income are connected, trends in wealth and income inequality tend to move in parallel. In my research into the dynamics of economic inequality I tend to focus on wealth, because it is easier to quantify. For example, it is hard to trace income inequality in America for the period before the federal government began collecting income taxes (in 1913), but there are reasonably good data for the magnitude of top fortunes (so we can backproject the Forbes-type data to the nineteenth and even eighteenth century).

In particular, we know that during the nineteenth century the largest fortunes grew much faster than the median household wealth, culminating in a period known as the Gilded Age. We are currently living through what many commentators have called the ‘Second Gilded Age.’

But the two Gilded Ages were separated by a period when economic inequality was decreasing – roughly between 1910 and 1980. This period is sometimes called “the Great Compression.” So the dynamics of inequality in the US between 1800 and today were cyclic – up, then down, and now again up.

Interestingly, inequality in health was also cyclic, and its up- and down-trends closely trace the dynamics of economic inequality. Take a look at this graph from my forthcoming book on structural-demographic analysis of American history:

Long-term dynamics of life expectancies and average heights (stature) of native-born Americans

There are two measures of health here, life expectancy at age 10 and the average height. Around 1800 Americans were one of the healthiest nations on Earth. They certainly were the tallest (according to John Komlos and other researchers in the new discipline of anthropometrics). But during the nineteenth century, as economic inequality started to grow, common Americans began losing ground. By the end of the century they lost about 8 years of life expectancy and 4 cm (almost 2 inches) of average height.

Why do I treat this trend as one of increasing health inequality? Because, at least for stature, we have data for both average Americans and those who were better off. At the same time that the height of an average army recruit was declining, the heights of West Point cadets (who came from more privileged backgrounds) were actually growing. Because there are many more common Americans than the elites, the trajectory of the average height reflected the declining standards of life of the majority of people rather than the good health of the small proportion, the elites.

During most of the twentieth century (before 1980), as economic inequality declined, both health indices grew explosively. Americans regained their status as the tallest nation. Then came the turning point of 1980. The graph above does not really show what happened after 1980, because it is based on data published during the 1990s. But studies examining health indices in recent decades suggest that trends are not particularly encouraging. For example, John Komlos and co-author Marieluise Baur recently published an article with the telling title: “From the Tallest to (One of) the Fattest: The Enigmatic Fate of the American Population in the 20th Century.” In the abstract, they write that today:

the Dutch, Swedes, and Norwegians are the tallest, and the Danes, British and Germans – even the East-Germans – are also taller, towering over the Americans by as much as 3-7 cm. Americans also live shorter. The hypothesis is worth considering that this adverse development is related to the greater social inequality, an inferior health-care system, and fewer social safety nets in the United States than in Western and Northern Europe, in spite of higher per capita income.

And this brings me back to the report on the declining life expectancy for high-school dropouts. Historical data show that rampant economic inequality results in declining standards of life for the least advantaged segments of the population. This is what happened during the nineteenth century in America, and, apparently, this is what is happening today.

4 January 2016

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  • ari9999

    Extreme wealth disparity? Better to call it dysparity.

  • Swami Cat

    Am I the only one reading this and seeing a grab bag of isolated facts spun into a narrative of whatever the negative trend the answer is “inequality!”

    First, the author starts by implying that inequality is causing black females to become shorter. A cursory review of US Census data shows that during the period in question blacks saw substantially larger relative gains in income than did whites. In addition, the era includes the civil rights movement, huge increases in high school and college graduation rates, the advent of the era of affirmative action and minority hiring and college admission initiatives and so on. So, the basic trend was less inequality and better outcomes and yet somehow smaller stature indicates the cancerous effects of inequality? WTF?

    Here is a list of wacky hypotheses:

    1). Increasing levels of education cause shorter black females
    2). Decreasing levels of inequality and greater average incomes causes black women to get shorter
    3). Global warming causes black women to get shorter
    4). The civil rights movement causes black women, but not men, to get shorter
    5). The breakdown of the black family and huge increases in single adult households causes black females to become shorter
    6). Rap music causes women to get shorter
    7). Short women are color blind and more likely to mislabel themselves as “black”

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that all these hypotheses are absurd. But so is the one Turchin makes up. Indeed, my seven silly hypotheses at least are logically coherent, as his was basically “inequality caused black females to get shorter even though inequality was reduced for black females.” This is the single worst forcing of data into a hypothesis that I have ever seen in the social sciences.

    Then he goes on to the decline in life expectancy of white females without high school degrees. What he deceptively fails to mention is that the actual trend was a whopping positive reduction in percent without a degree dropping from 22 percent to 13%.

    The obvious explanation is that females not graduating today look very, very different from those not graduating two decades ago. The current group is an adverse selection of the worst of the worst. Thus there is no decline at all, just a comparison of a biased group in the first place to an EXTREMELY biased group in the second. In other words you are comparing two disparate groups.

    This is something any high school graduate should be aware of when using statistics. If the guy inventing cliodynamics isn’t aware of this, it doesn’t say much for the new “science” does it? Or is Cliodynamics the science of forcing data to prove ones political agenda?

    Next, he mentions how native born Americans got shorter and lived shorter lives during the 19th C. Reviewing the literature, this is indeed one of the mysteries of social science. Average and median incomes were clearly rising, yet we were getting shorter and living shorter lives (though still better than just about anywhere else on earth). The attached link gives a scholarly review of the data, concluding that trends were probably distorted by bad data and that there were slight decreases in lifespan up until the Civil War, after which the trend reversed and height and lifespan again SOARED even as inequality continued to worsen through the 1910s (and incomes continued to grow about 2% a year through the entire two centuries). Explanations in the article include increased urbanization.

    If I was to pull some wild ideas out of my backside I would add that what needs explaining isn’t the height or lifespan data in the mid 19th C, which again was among the highest on the planet, it was why were lifespan and height in the US so freakishly high in the late 18th C? (Part or all of the explanation may be that the data in the 18th C was extremely biased to one state — Massachusetts). Logical hypotheses would be that it was a factor of some of the lowest densities and largest, most virgin and productive land per person ever experienced. In other words,standard Malthusian logic assumes that if there is abnormally high lifespan, absent something significant happening, population will increase and lifespans will be reduced.

    This is EXACTLY what happened in both England and the US. Lifespans were dropping until the industrial revolution and “great enrichment” began to outrun Malthusian forces. After mid 19th C (earlier in England) the rate of advance in technology and prosperity outpaced the headwinds of Malthus and increased urbanization. Adding inequality to the discussion adds nothing to the situation, and is clearly empirically contradictory to the trend of inequality increasing until the beginning of the 20th C (see Picketty)

    Are we starting to see a pattern on Turchin’s propaganda? Well it continues. Next he mentions that the US, with a population of immigrants and blacks s losing ground in terms of height and income to places with lots of tall, blond, Northern Europeans and no influxes or short Asians and Hispanics. Wow! You don’t say! This is amazing!

    If he wanted to approach the issue honestly, he would compare heights and incomes by race and place of origin to the same trends back in the home country. You know, compare incomes and heights of Norwegian Americans to Norwegians, and Hispanic Americans to central Americans. There is of course a reason he doesn’t do this. It is that it reverses his narrative. Blacks and Hispanics and Chinese and Norwegions are all doing BETTER here than those they left behind in the home country. Talk about INCONVENIENT TRUTH! Indeed it would imply that the higher inequality in the US leads to taller and richer people.

    Do not get me wrong. I am NOT seriously arguing for any of my above seat-of- the-pants hypotheses. My point is simply that Turchin should be ashamed of this *let me explain any negative trend I can find or pretend to find and spin it into a narrative that inequality is the cause, because people are stupid enough to believe it because they want to.”

    This is not the work of a serious academic. It is, quite frankly embarrassing.

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