SU Maxwell Professor: State Policies Driving Gaps in Life Expectancy

Aug 4, 2020

Trends in Life Expectancy by US State, 1959–2017. Data from the United States Mortality Database. The blue line is Connecticut, and the red line is Oklahoma.
Credit Wiley online library

Research conducted by a Syracuse University Maxwell School sociology professor finds that partisan state policies have significant impacts on life expectancy.  Jennifer Karas Montez and seven others spent two years combing through nearly five decades of data, and found there’s a strong correlation between liberal policies and longer life expectancy, and conservative states that saw less gains.

"The evidence that we've been able to produce in this study supports our hypothesis that the changes in state policies, the polarization in state policies, underly the growing divergence in life expectancy across states, and the deterioration in U.S. life expectancy."

Montez found that Hawaii had the highest life expectancy, and West Virginia had the lowest.  She says policy shifts on tobacco, labor, the environment, civil rights, gun rights, and other areas can have meaningful change.

"If a state were to change its labor policies from the most conservative to the most liberal configuration, for example raising the minimum wage, our study predicts they would see a one year increase in life expectancy, which is really large."

Especially, she says, when it takes a lot to see a shift of one tenth of a year.  Montez says state policies are playing a key role in the decline of U.S. life expectancy.  She says this has become especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.  [Note: the research was conducted before the pandemic began]

"It's become clear to most Americans the power that has been consolidated at the state level, where the federal governement has deferred a lot of policy making power to the states."

Montez says states have also pre-empted local government authority, amassing an enormous amount of power that has life and death implications for all Americans.  Her paper is published in The Milbank Quarterly, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Carnegie Corporation.