Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A modern "Antebellum puzzle"?

By Claude Fischer

boy being measured for height

As described in an earlier post, there was a long period during America’ nineteenth-century economic growth in which progress was so uneven, so unequal that the height and life spans of Americans declined for a few decades. On average, those who were born between roughly 1830 and 1870 grew up a bit shorter and lived a bit shorter lives than those born before and after. Wealthier Americans’ children, however, did not suffer this setback.

boy being measured for height

The “antebellum puzzle” of widespread GDP growth but worsening lives for average Americans is explained, in part, by the increasing spread of disease among an urbanizing and traveling people and even more by a reduction in nutritious food for children. Growing national and international demand drove up the price of foods like milk and meat and even led farmers to divert their production from feeding their families to selling crops on the global market. The unevenness of developing commerce helps explain the unequal pattern of height loss.1

This history raises for us the question of whether the recent expansion of inequality since the 1970s is creating its own, modern version of the “antebellum puzzle.”

Taller or wider?

If the current well-documented widening inequality is writing itself into the very bodies of our children, we are unlikely to see the same outcomes that Americans experienced over 150 years ago. Food stamps, school lunches, required vitamin enrichment, and other government programs largely ensure that few children will be actually stunted. Similarly, other public goods, such as sanitation, medicaid, medical breakthroughs, and the like minimize the damage of infectious diseases.

But we do face what a couple of scholars refer to as a “conundrum”: Whereas Americans used to be taller than Europeans, in the 21st century we are on average shorter than citizens of affluent European nations such as Sweden, Germany, and Britain. And we are falling further behind the western Europeans in life expectancy, too. For example, in 1970, the life expectancy of a newborn American boy was 67.1 years, 3.7 years less than a Dutch boy. A generation later, in 2005, the American boy could expect to live 77.2 years. That’s a decent improvement, but he was now 4.3 years behind the Dutch boy (source). What we are tops in is obesity: #1 in the world at 31%, versus, for example, the Dutch, #20 at 10% (source).

It may be that the contemporary “puzzle” or “conundrum” is playing itself out, not in malnutrition and stunting, but in unhealthy weight. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that between the early 1970s and the mid-2000s, teenage American boys barely grew in height — from an average of 5’7″ to an average of 5’8″ — but they clearly grew heavier, from 139 on average to 158 lbs. (Their BMI was up 11%.)2 While experts debate the explanation for our “obesity epidemic,” the availability of cheap, subsidized, unhealthy calories in the form of, say, corn sugar rather than healthy calories in the form of more expensive proteins and vegetables is part of it (see, e.g., pdf).3 Obesity has generally accelerated more among minority than white youth (pdf).

Twenty-second-century historical demographers may look back on these decades and wonder how unhealthy American children became during decades of economic expansion and technological miracles. And they will probably conclude that it was, like the antebellum puzzle a byproduct of growing inequality.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.


1. The history of the “antebellum puzzle” is also described, with extensive references, in Made in America, p. 22. More recent studies of that history include this and this.

2. My calculations — drawing on this source (pdf) for the earlier years and this one (pdf) for the last. See, also, here.

3. Challenging the argument about inequality, however, one study reports that class differences in obesity declined from c. 1973 to c. 2000 — but this was of adults who were exposed to the changes in diet regimes largely in the mid-twentieth century, not the era of inequality.