By Lawrence S. Wittner
Although, in recent decades, American conservatives have embraced what they call the “Right to Life,” they have certainly done a poor job of sustaining life in the United States.
That’s the conclusion that can be drawn from a just-published scientific study, “U.S. state policy contexts and mortality of working-age adults.”
Funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institute on Aging and prepared by a group of U.S. and Canadian researchers, the study found a close relationship, in the period from 1999 to 2019, between the mortality rates of Americans between 20 and 64 years of age and the conservative or liberal control of their state governments.
Specifically, the study concluded that a state’s liberal policies promoting gun safety, environmental protections, labor rights (e.g., minimum wage and paid leave), progressive taxation and tobacco control lowered mortality rates. By contrast, a state’s conservative policies in these areas increased a state’s death rate. Thus, in 2019, life expectancy in conservative Mississippi stood at 74.4 years; in liberal Hawaii, at 80.9 years.
The authors estimated that if all states had had a maximum liberal orientation in the public policy areas studied, 171,030 working-age lives would have been saved in 2019 alone. On the other hand, if all states had had a maximum conservative orientation that year, an additional 217,635 working-age deaths would have occurred.
Especially strong associations were found between the absence of gun safety and suicide mortality among men, between the absence of labor rights and alcohol-induced mortality, and between the absence of tobacco taxes and economic taxes and cardiovascular mortality.
The association between conservative governance and rising death rates might also explain why, with the growth of rightwing Republican control of many states, the U.S. mortality rate, long on the wane, has been rising dramatically since 2009.
The result, as the authors of the recent scientific study observe, is that in 2019, Americans―who then had a life expectancy of 78.8 years―died 5.7 years earlier than the Japanese, 3.3 years earlier than Canadians and 2.5 years earlier than the British. In 2020, U.S. life expectancy dropped to 77.0 years. In 2021, it dropped to 76.1 years.
As Americans cast their votes this November, they might want to consider whether these kinds of conservative public policies have served them well in the past and will do so in the future.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany.