Lifespan now more associated with college degree than race: Princeton economists

March 8, 2021

A college degree is the ticket to a longer life, research says. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The one-third of adult Americans who have bachelor's degrees have been living progressively longer over the past three decades, while the two-thirds without bachelor's degrees have been dying younger since 2010, according to new research by two Princeton University economists who first sounded the alarm on "deaths of despair." 

As the mortality gap has grown when it comes to education, the gap has narrowed in relation to race, according to a paper published Monday by Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton. 

"Education turned out to be a really sharp knife in regard to death and the labor market," Case told The Academic Times

The divide between Black and white Americans in the number of years they can expect to live between 25 and 75 years old has narrowed by 70% since 1990, Case and Deaton found in their new paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

At the same time, the divide in expected years of life between people with and without bachelor's degrees within both racial groups has more than doubled in size. 

"Blacks and whites with a four-year degree look a lot more like each other now, whereas back in 1990 that was not the case," said Case. "The class divide became so much more pronounced." 

As of 2018, people with a bachelor's degree could expect to live 48.2 years out of the possible 50 between 25 and 75 years old — a number that has steadily risen for decades, according to Case and Deaton. By comparison, those without a degree could expect to live 45.1 years over the same period — a number that has declined since 2010. 

Just 36% of Americans aged 25 or older had a bachelor's degree as of 2019.  

"Everywhere we looked we saw education, and it was this particular divide — BA-no BA — that was most vulnerable," said Case. 

Case and Deaton, who are spouses in addition to research partners, based their findings on mortality data for 48.9 million adults from the National Vital Statistical System from 1990 to 2018. Therefore, the study did not incorporate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hard data on death and education for 2020 will be hard to come by until later this year or next year, but Case said she expects the pandemic will have only made the class divide worse. 

"For people without a bachelor's degree, for at least the first six months of the pandemic, it was either 'I risk my life' or 'I risk my livelihood,'" said Case. "There's no reason to think that it's going to be anything but very bad news in terms of even lower life expectancy for people without a bachelor's degree." 

The longer-term fall in life expectancy for the working class has coincided with declining union membership and a globalized economic system with fewer U.S. manufacturing jobs, Case said. As economic prospects for people without college degrees have fallen, working class people — especially whites — have died more frequently from drug overdoses, suicides and alcoholism, a pattern that Case and Deaton identified using the now-ubiquitous term "deaths of despair" in a 2015 paper and 2020 book

In recent months, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University have also connected heart health and longevity to economic inequality, while researchers from the University of Liverpool in the U.K. have shown that blue-collar jobs are associated with heavier drinking. 

Case and Deaton's research on bachelor's degrees and mortality grew naturally out of their work on deaths of despair, Case said, as the pair noticed that the people who were increasingly dying from suicide, drugs and alcohol did not have degrees. 

"It became almost immediately apparent that people without a bachelor's degree were at highest risk," she said. 

The researchers focused on the age range of 25 to 75 partially because deaths of despair were concentrated among that bracket, Case said, and because most people under 25 have not yet had the chance to graduate college. 

"We decided that the easiest way to justify a clean look at this was to look at 25 to 75, although I should tell you that our results hold if we just look at 25 to the end," she said. 

Case said that the mortality gap she and Deaton identified shows that broader economic changes are required to increase the power of workers. 

"We need to figure out in this country how labor is going to regain its seat at the table when the pie gets cut," she said. "If we don't do that, we are at risk for things that will make the Jan. 6 seizure of the Capitol look like nothing." 

Case spoke to The Academic Times on March 5, shortly after moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate had voted down Bernie Sanders' amendment to a COVID-19 relief bill that would have gradually raised the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. She said she disagreed with opponents of the wage hike, who have argued that raising the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 would destroy jobs. 

"Bernie Sanders is right," Case said. "People earning the federal minimum wage — they're basically standing on the poverty line. That's insane." 

"Raising the minimum wage was like a Band-Aid, but it was a Band-Aid we needed," she added. 

Nonetheless, Case said she hopes that the Biden administration will be good for the working class, and singled out Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as a particularly strong pick. 

"What we want to do is to make sure that everyone who works earns enough money to live a life that's good," she said. "I think there are many people in the Biden administration who understand that." 

The study, "Life expectancy in adulthood is falling for those without a BA degree, but as educational gaps have widened, racial gaps have narrowed," published on March 8 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was authored by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University. 

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