A study reveals that the height of Americans on average is being outpaced by other countries for the first time in its history. The reasons are surprising.
Precise measurements of the living standards of any country can be a tricky business. In the past, economists have relied on a variety of tools to chart a nation's development or decline.
One method that has found a lot of support in the last few decades might seem a little unorthodox. By its medical name, it is known as auxology, the study of growth.
By merging two seemingly unrelated fields, the study of medicine and the study of the economy, researchers began making some interesting discoveries. They found that the average height of a citizen can say much about the overall living conditions inside a nation. The analysis can be applied to the bones of ancient Romans or to the records from modern nations.
And working on that basis, what they found when they looked at the US was intriguing but a little disturbing.
The theory that there was a connection between stature and living standards had been around for quite some time before it began to receive more serious attention. Work by Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel gave the idea some credibility and in the 1980s Professor University of Munich professor John Komlos continued this line of research.
In 1989, this new discipline was given the name "anthropometric history." It was primarily used to gauge the standard of living in order to compare different groups of people in the past. However, it has applications for the present too. Height can also be used to detect the changes in standard of living over a period of time in any given nation.
What scientists found was that where there is general prosperity, there is also growth in stature. (It can also show where the opposite is true.)
In 1996, TIME magazine brought this research into the mainstream with an article entitled "A Tall Story for our Tıme."
The evidence of auxologists--who cross the disciplines of economic history, pediatrics, biology and sociology--is that average height reflects how well, or badly a population is doing--its diet, wealth, quality of housing, levels of pollution, disease and stress--and is a far better measure of a nation's standard of living than such conventional indicators as gross national product or per capita income.
Tree Rings of a Nation
But what are the mechanisms at work here?
Prior to reaching adulthood, the physical stature of children and youth is determined by the balance between the intake of nutrients and expenditure of energy, called net nutritional status.
Final adult height is reached by the early 20s and after about age 50 people begin to shrink. Hence, height provides a historical record of nutritional status until early adulthood. It is influenced by nutritional intake which, in turn, is determined by such economic variables as real family income and food prices. However, nutritional status is also affected by the claims on nutrient intake such as work during adolescence, frequency, length and severity of endemic or epidemic diseases.
The researchers found that height is a record of growth and, much like tree rings, indicate the conditions of formative growth. Height also tells a slightly different story about the standard of living because it measures consumption of basic necessities, rather than output. Moreover, because growth occurs mostly in childhood, it allows researchers to look at how resources are allocated within families.
On this basis, the effect has been accepted as an index of the overall economic condition and the living standards in the developing world.
In some ways, it could also be seen as an empirical test of the so-called "trickle-down" economic theory.
Here is the disturbing part of the research.
According to extensive research by Professor Komlos and others, Americans, after being the tallest population in the world for at least two centuries, now lag behind many of their European counterparts who are on average taller.
From now. Americans by and large will be looking up to the citizens of Norway, Germany, and Netherlands. The Dutch have become the tallest people on Earth and there doesn't seem to be any limit. As USAToday noted:
The article mentions that Dutch "protein-rich diet and a national health service that pampers infants" may have something to do with this dramatic growth.Prosperity propelled the collective growth spurt that began in the mid-1800s and was only interrupted during the harsh years of the Nazi occupation in the 1940s — when average heights actually declined.With their protein-rich diet and a national health service that pampers infants, the Dutch are standing taller than ever. The average Dutchman stands just over 6 feet, while women average nearly 5-foot-7.
Keep in mind that this is only the average.
Many Dutch are much taller than that. In fact, four years ago the Dutch government was forced to change building codes to raise the standards for door frames and ceilings. Doors are now required to be at least 7 feet 6.5 inches high.
Meanwhile.. back in the New World.
Richard Steckel, a professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State University, has looked over the research and notes that "The average height of Americans has been pretty much stagnant for 25 years."
For African-Americans, the numbers have actually been in decline.
A Question of Care
Economic historians point out that in addition to early nutrition, another factor in increasing height is access to adequate medical care. While the growth of a person is basically affected by food intake and by the availability and to some degree the genes, both the effectiveness but also accessibility of medical care play a role. (Infants and children that receive adequate medical care are less stressed by diseases and growth is allowed to proceed at its full potential.)
"One of the keys to understanding why America is falling behind other countries in terms of stature has to do with access to health care, particularly for children... I suspect there are pockets of poverty in the United States where the lack of medical programs and nutritional programs may be factors in poor health, and the reason some people aren't growing as tall as they might."
Access to medical care is related to costs. As the 2006 study observes:
The cost of medical services are therefore important as well as how the medical sector is organized, because that affects transaction costs, entitlements to health services as well as externalities, thereby determining quality and quantity of care.
That is not to say that America as a nation doesn't spend enough on health care. The US per capita expenditure on health is more than $4,000 per annum - twice as much as the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average. Compare that to Sweden which spends $1,700 per annum.
The amount of money spent on healthcare is perhaps not as important as the numbers of people who actually receive the benefits of that healthcare. After all, if it is healthcare that nobody can actually afford, what's the point?
In the 2006 study, researchers dare to ask the unthinkable question (as far as Republican conservatives are concerned). Could it be that the European welfare state "with its universal socio-economic safety net" is about to provide a better biological standard of living to its children and youth than the free-market oriented US health care system?
It runs deeper than just an expensive but failing healthcare system. Social inequalities also may have a role to play.
The distribution of income within a society also matters to height insofar as that has an impact both on the ability to acquire nutrients and to obtain medical care and medicine. Thus, the political economy of the health care system, education, transfers to the poor, and government policy toward equality (hence taxation policy) all matter.
Coincidentally, these are the very issues that are the most hotly contested between the two parties.
The Tallest Folk
Historically, when it came to stature, Americans have always overshadowed- literally- their Europeans counterparts. On average, Americans were a full two and half inches taller than the average European.
That difference was true was the time of the colonies, leading some historians to believe that living conditions in the early colonies were much better than that of their ruling country. (At least for the children that survived to adulthood.)
In some ways, Americans as individuals grew as the nation grew.
According to statistics, that average heights among men- women were not measured- held steady from 1800 and peaked at 1830. Following this period, the average American grew smaller at 5 ft. 6 inches. This a sharp decline continued from the about the time of the Civil War and continued through the so-called Gilded Age.
This coincides with America in reconstruction followed by the rise of the industrialized nation. It was also a time when capitalism was left to its own devices, workers suffered from poor working conditions, inadequate pay, and dire living conditions.
This makes sense . Economic historians suggest that one factor affecting stature may be what they call "urban disamenities," which include substandard, overcrowded city housing, inadequate health care, and a stressful environment.
The graph represents the average heights of native-born Americans and does not appear to include immigrant Americans. However, even taking in the immigrant population it's important to note that, though the numbers dropped, Americans were still the tallest in the world. This was a time when immigration rates had been very high for some time, particularly from the poorer and shorter, populations of Eastern and Southern Europe.
With the absorption of that immigrant population, and the Progressive era, (1880- 1910) the decline was not only halted but Americans began to really take on size. Between 1900 and 1950, the average height of native-born American men and women soared dramatically. Improvements in child care and medicine in general, better nutrition all might have played a factor.
And, unexpectedly, this effect continued throughout the Great Depression despite the hard economic times. Overall, though, according to one source, "a review of real incomes trends in families in the first half of the twentieth century suggests that between 1901 and 1950 American families saw their incomes more than double."
Besides that, this was a great period of social reform, especially in terms of public health.
Yet after the Second World War, the study of the average height of American revealed that something important had changed.
As the 2006 study points out:
US heights have stabilized at mid-century and a period of stagnation set in with the birth cohorts 1955-74, concurrent with continual rapid increases in heights in Western and Northern Europe.
When it comes to being tall in the saddle, after at least two centuries of being the tallest people in the world Americans were (and still are) falling behind other nations.
A Fitting Act of Karma?
Is it just a coincidence that, of the three of the countries that now stand taller, all provide universal access to healthcare for their population. These countries draw their healthcare funding from the general taxation (though there are slight differences in the method of taxation). Scandinavian healthcare systems are publicly governed and, in large part, also publicly owned.
In short, it's the kind of healthcare that Republicans long called "creeping socialism" It's the kind of system that Sarah Palin once called "downright evil." But it's the kind of system that produces cost-effective results. It's a system were, apparently, children thrive.
Whether the failing American health care system has been responsible for the stagnation of individual growth is highly debatable, of course. We have a chance to test the theory on a nation-wide scale as Obamacare really begins to impact those families for whom access to medical care had previously been unaffordable. If the theory is true, we should see a dramatic rise in growth rates among children and young adults in the next ten years.
At least in those states that have committed to the Affordable Care Act.
The rest of the nation?
Welcome to Hobbitland. It would certainly be a fitting act of Karma for small- minded and short-term thinking.