Why the world doesn't look up to Americans any more

Anthropometric history – the study of heights – somehow fascinates me. One of the most interesting findings in this field is that relative to Europeans, Americans are getting shorter.

Underperformance in Affluence: The Remarkable Relative Decline in U.S. Heights in the Second Half of the 20th Century
John Komlos and Benjamin E. Lauderdale

Objective. We use the complete set of NHES and NHANES data collected between 1959 and 2004 in order to construct trends for the physical stature of the non-Hispanic white and black U.S. adult population and compare them to those of western and northern Europeans.

Method. Regression analysis is used to estimate the trend in U.S. heights stratified by gender and ethnicity, holding income and educational attainment constant.

Results. U.S. heights stabilized at mid-century and a two-decade period of stagnation set in with the birth cohorts 1955–1974, concurrent with continual rapid increases in heights in western and northern Europe. Americans had been the tallest in the world for (more than) two centuries until World War II, but by the end of the 20th century fell behind many European populations. Only since the most recent birth cohorts 1975–1983 is some gain apparent among whites but not among blacks. The relationship between height and income and between height and educational attainment has not changed appreciably over time for either men or women.

Conclusion. We conjecture that the U.S. health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net, might be why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income alone. The comparative pattern bears some similarly to that of life expectancy insofar as the United States is also lagging behind in that respect.

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9 Responses to Why the world doesn't look up to Americans any more

  1. Though as the world is still designed for shorter people, the only problem here is any underlying causes, not a lack of height in itself.

  2. Bring Back CL's blog says:

    is this another tall story?

  3. I think their conjecture is a huge stretch. They didn’t try to explain why the health system and welfare net would be affecting adult height. Are they seriously suggesting that taller people are less healthy or suffer more malnutrition and therefore have lower reproductive potential?

    The US is a melting pot for waves of immigration. My conjecture is that’s a more plausible explanation. For example, while they excluded Hispanics they did not exclude Asians.

  4. Leon says:

    I agree that this sort of study is interesting, but surely height has a much more vague and diffuse association with “good health” than e.g. life expectancy, or various quality of life measures which have been developed. I mean, why not make the same point more strongly using other variables? Also, the study wouldn’t be vulnerable to criticisms like David’s.

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    David, I took the argument to be about child malnutrition and adult height within generations, rather than across them.

    Leon, there’s a big literature on why the US has one of the lowest rates of life expectancy and highest rates of infant mortality in the developed world. But I’m not sure that makes this uninteresting. And of course, any other health-focused measure is subject to similar critiques. Even if you restrict the sample to those who call themselves white non-hispanic in the Census, the gene pool in America is probably more mixed than in Europe.

  6. ChrisPer says:

    Intersting FRAMING of this article. Have you noticed that the debate on obesity in the media is a kind of proxy for new-class anti-american sentiment?

  7. valerie says:

    We’ve had more people immigrate to america from latin american and asian countries over the last half century. maybe that’s part of it.

  8. mugwump says:

    “We conjecture that the U.S. health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net…

    Hmm, knee-jerk tilt at the U.S. health-care and welfare system. I conjecture that the authors are your common-or-garden-variety anti-American lefty academics.

    Move on, nothing worth reading here…

  9. Andrew Leigh says:

    Mugwump, I think we’re learning about your prejudices rather than anything else. The paper’s finding on welfare and poverty is pretty consistent with the literature. Here’s Tim Smeeding, from his terrific JEP paper, Poor People in Rich Nations:

    Comparative cross-national poverty rankings suggest that United States poverty rates are at or near the top of the range when compared with poverty rates in other rich countries. The United States child and elderly poverty rates seem particularly troublesome. America’s elders also have poverty rates that are high, particularly on relative grounds. In most rich countries, the relative child poverty rate is 10 percent or less; in the United States, it is 21.9 percent.

    And there’s nothing “common-or-garden-variety” about Komlos (there was a great New Yorker profile of him a couple of years ago).

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