During the Great Depression People Actually Lived Longer
The Great Depression was a difficult time that turned life in the United States, when millions of people struggled to find and cope with work. Despite the tough times, the average lifespan of Americans has actually increased.
In fact, historical research shows that during the 20th century, increases in mortality in the United States often occurred during periods of economic prosperity, while decreases occurred during economic depressions or recessions.
In the first years after the 1929 stock market crash, the only major cause of death that has increased has been suicide, says José A. Tapia Granados, professor of politics at the University of Drexel and co-author of a research article published in 2009 in PNAS on life and death during the Great Depression. As suicides increased, Tapia found that deaths from cardiovascular and kidney disease stabilized between 1930 and 1932, the worst years of depression. Road fatalities fell in 1932. Deaths from tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia also declined.
As a result, average life expectancy in the United States increased from about 57 in 1929 to 63 in 1933. Over the two decades, people of color had an average life expectancy lower than that of whites. However, when depression hit, the average life expectancy of people of color increased faster than that of whites, increasing by about eight years from 1929 to 1933.
Less traffic, smoking with a bad economy
There are no firm answers as to why Americans lived longer during the worst years of depression, but the researchers made some suggestions. Take traffic deaths: car use increased during the 1920s, and with it, traffic deaths also increased. One possible explanation for their decline in the 1930s is that, with higher unemployment rates, there were just fewer people on the road. Fewer people could also afford to own cars, as shown in a famous photo (above) of a man trying to sell his car after losing his money on the stock market.
Research also suggests that during economic expansions in the United States, people smoke more, experience more stress, and sleep less. All of these factors can have a negative impact on health. This could apply not only to the Great Depression, but to other economic downturns in the 20th century. In 2018, Tapia is co-author another paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology who looked at the data from 1985 to 2011, a period that spanned three recessions.
“What we found in this article is that a number of things that are generally considered unemployed – well, apparently, this is not true,” he says. Although the unemployed in the study had higher levels of depression, their blood pressure was on average lower. They did not smoke or drink more than the people employed. In fact, Tapia notes that cigarette sales have historically increased when the economy is doing well and declined when it is not.
Longer life expectancy during periods of economic decline was noted as early as the 1920s, when William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas made this observation using American and British data. In 1977, Joseph Eyer relaunched this theory with a sensational article, “Prosperity as the cause of death.” Today, academics have observed similar trends in Europe, and there is debate about what this means.
The effect of the economy on lifespans may reflect a “lag”
One argument is that the increase and decrease in mortality in the economy reflects a “lag” in the effects on people’s health. In this scenario, mortality rates would be higher in a good economy due to the poor health conditions that people experienced in a previous recession. And in turn, mortality would be lower in a bad economy because of the good conditions that people experienced during the previous economic expansion.
Research has also pointed out that a “good” economy does not mean that living conditions are “good” for everyone. Increased economic productivity often creates more pollution, which affects those who have the least access to health services and secure housing. Infants in particular are sensitive to poor environmental conditions; higher levels of factors such as air pollution can therefore increase infant mortality.
There are no simple answers to explain why the average lifespan increased during the Great Depression, or why American mortality continued to rise and fall with the economy. But that contradicts the assumptions that, as the economy goes, so does the health of a nation.