We are sicker when we live in stingier societies

March 2, 2017

People living in the United States today live lives that are sicker and end earlier than people living in other high-income countries.  The facts are described in two recent reports [https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13497/us-health-in-international-perspective-shorter-lives-poorer-health and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK62369/] sponsored by the National Academy of Science. Jason Beckfield has joined sociologists, demographers, and epidemiologists in ongoing efforts to explain the growing US health disadvantage, and he recently published a new study in Social Science & Medicine that shows US life expectancy would be approximately 3-5 years longer if the US were not a social policy laggard.

Beckfield and his co-author Clare Bambra, who are part of the Health Inequalities in European Welfare States (HiNEWS) project funded by the NORFACE European scientific consortium, use population health data from high-income countries to assess how changes in social policy over time relate to long-term trends in life expectancy at birth, and at age 65.  Using a wide array of measures of social policy in the areas of pension, sickness, and unemployment benefits, they find strong social policy effects on life expectancy that are robust to durable, unmeasured differences across the societies included in their study.  The open-access article is freely available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953616305858 .

Building on collaborative work with the HiNEWS scholars, Sigrun Olafsdottir, Nancy Krieger, Ben Sosnaud, and others, Beckfield is now completing a new book that integrates ideas from social epidemiology and political sociology to develop a general theory of how institutional arrangements distribute public and private goods.  The book, tentatively titled Life and Death by Design, develops a framework for thinking about how institutions organize power in social life, and how power then distributes global population health.  The book inspires and is inspired by his new Harvard College course, Death by Design: Health Inequalities in Global Perspective.  These and other ways of understanding population dynamics are discussed in the new Social Demography Seminar at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.