The other day, during a political discussion (these days, pretty much every discussion gets political) my youngest son wondered aloud whether it had been a mistake to win the Civil War. The red states of the South have been an economic drag on the blue states for a long time–they send significantly fewer dollars to Washington than they receive courtesy of blue state largesse.
My son was being flip, but his characterization of Red and Blue states wasn’t far off. As Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column in the New York Times, “the political divide is also, increasingly, an economic divide.”
Democratic-leaning areas used to look similar to Republican-leaning areas in terms of productivity, income and education. But they have been rapidly diverging, with blue areas getting more productive, richer and better educated. In the close presidential election of 2000, counties that supported Al Gore over George W. Bush accounted for only a little over half the nation’s economic output. In the close election of 2016, counties that supported Hillary Clinton accounted for 64 percent of output, almost twice the share of Trump country.
Evidently, however, we don’t just live in different economies–lately, we also die differently.
Back in the Bush years I used to encounter people who insisted that the United States had the world’s longest life expectancy. They hadn’t looked at the data, they just assumed that America was No. 1 on everything. Even then it wasn’t true: U.S. life expectancy has been below that of other advanced countries for a long time.
The death gap has, however, widened considerably in recent years as a result of increased mortality among working-age Americans. This rise in mortality has, in turn, been largely a result of rising “deaths of despair”: drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol. And the rise in these deaths has led to declining overall life expectancy for the past few years.
What I haven’t seen emphasized is the divergence in life expectancy within the United States and its close correlation with political orientation. True, a recent Times article on the phenomenon noted that life expectancy in coastal metropolitan areas is still rising about as fast as life expectancy in other advanced countries. But the regional divide goes deeper than that.
It turns out that the “death divide” Krugman is addressing is closely correlated with political orientation.
I looked at states that voted for Donald Trump versus states that voted for Clinton in 2016, and calculated average life expectancy weighted by their 2016 population. In 1990, today’s red and blue states had almost the same life expectancy. Since then, however, life expectancy in Clinton states has risen more or less in line with other advanced countries, compared with almost no gain in Trump country. At this point, blue-state residents can expect to live more than four years longer than their red-state counterparts.
There are a number of possible explanations: blue states expanded Medicaid while most red states didn’t, for example. The gap in educational levels is probably implicated as well; better-educated people tend to be healthier than the less educated, for a number of reasons.
Krugman also notes differences in behavior and lifestyle that affect mortality. (Although obesity has dramatically increased all across America, obesity rates are significantly higher in red states.)
Krugman references–and debunks–conservative explanations for the death divide:
Conservative figures like William Barr, the attorney general, look at rising mortality in America and attribute it to the collapse of traditional values — a collapse they attribute, in turn, to the evil machinations of “militant secularists.” The secularist assault on traditional values, Barr claims, lies behind “soaring suicide rates,” rising violence and “a deadly drug epidemic.”
But European nations, which are far more secularist than we are, haven’t seen a comparable rise in deaths of despair and an American-style decline in life expectancy. And even within America these evils are concentrated in states that voted for Trump, and have largely bypassed the more secular blue states.
Although he doesn’t mention it, I’d also be interested in seeing a comparison of gun deaths in Red and Blue states.
Actually, conservatives like Barr inadvertently make a point: culture and values matter. Just not the way they think.