Do Liberal U.S. State Policies Maximize Life Expectancy?

Declines in U.S. life expectancy since 2014 have rightly garnered widespread attention from researchers (e.g., Woolf & Schoomaker, 2019), the media (e.g., Christensen, 2019), and policymakers (e.g., H.R. 7035, 2018), while less attention has been paid to the dynamic trends in life expectancy across U.S. states. Focusing only on trends at the national level obscures dramatically diverging trends across states. In recent years, some states experienced larger declines in life expectancy than did the country as a whole, while others experienced little change, and still others saw gains in life expectancy. Differences in life expectancy across states are now larger than ever recorded. Explaining these disparate trends can provide important clues about the structural conditions that cut short many American lives.

This article discusses the large and growing disparities in life expectancy across states, and posits that the partisan polarization across state policy contexts has contributed in important ways to the disparate trends. It first describes differences in life expectancy and other key measures of population health across states. It then summarizes key changes in state policy contexts that occurred during that timeframe. These latter changes led to a polarization in state contexts, with potentially profound consequences for people’s chances of living long and healthy lives. The article then highlights emerging evidence showing that those states which have implemented more liberal policies in recent decades have made some of the largest gains in life expectancy and movement toward maximizing human longevity.

The full study is available in Public Policy and Aging Report.