State Policy Polarization May Be Driving Life Expectancy by State

Life expectancy in the United States has declined in recent years, as well as become more unequal across states. State policies on issues such as tobacco, labor, immigration, civil rights, and the environment appear to be driving these trends, according to a new Milbank Quarterly study.

Jennifer Karas Montez of Syracuse University and an interdisciplinary team of colleagues, including Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, examined life expectancy and state policies between 1970 and 2014. They found that state policy movement to the right and left of the political spectrum since the 1980s, and particularly since 2010, may have had a significant impact on life expectancy. Between 1980 and 2017, life expectancy rose by just 2.2 years in Oklahoma (73.6 to 75.8 years), which had an increasingly conservative policy environment, but increased by 5.8 years in Connecticut (74.9 to 80.7 years), which had an increasingly liberal environment.

US life expectancy could be 2.8 years longer among women and 2.1 years longer among men if all states enjoyed the health advantages of a state like Connecticut, which would put US life expectancy on par with other high-income countries, according to the new research.

Christine Haran
Communications Director, Milbank Memorial Fund