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Education: A Matter of Life or Death?

October 2, 2023 | Posted in: Insights

Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton published a paper last week examining mortality trends for those with BA degrees versus those with lower educational attainment. They argue that mortality patterns across groups may be a better indicator of how well society is functioning than simple measures of material well-being such as income and wealth. The paper contains a great deal of information so I can only summarize key findings here.

As shown below, the gap in life expectancy widened from 2.6 years in 1992 to 6.3 years in 2019 before surging to 8.5 years during the pandemic.

The largest contributor to the widening gap has been what are termed “deaths of dispair.” They include deaths caused by drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Particularly disturbing is the fact that the greatest increase in mortality occurred in the 25-34 age group, and two-thirds of the deaths in this group were attributable to deaths of despair.
The next chart provides a comparison in life expectancy with 22 “high income” countries and the results are striking. Americans with a BA degree fare well versus comparable countries even though our relative standing has declined somewhat. However, Americans with lower educational attainment have much lower life expectancy and the gap has widened dramatically in the past few years.

The authors’ explanations for these trends include among others, globalization and automation, the lack of a European-style safety net in the U.S., inequality in access to health care, the decline in unionism, and the relative increase in corporate power and concentration. Of course, these topics are quite controversial but they could serve as the basis for an important national dialogue.