Stature and Living Standards in the United States
NBER Historical Working Paper No. 24
This paper briefly reviews the literature on the evolution of approaches to living standards and then applies the methodology discussed for stature to the United States from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries. Part I of the paper emphasizes two major strands of the subject: national-income accounting and related measures, developed by economists and government policy makers, and anthropometric measures (particularly stature), developed by human biologists, anthropologists, and the medical profession. I compare and contrast these alternative approaches to measuring living standards and place anthropometric measures within the context of the ongoing debate over the system of national accounts. Part II examines the relationship of stature to living standards beginning with a discussion of sources of evidence and the growth process. A statistical analysis explores the relationship of stature to per capita income and the distribution of income using 20th century data. Part III presents evidence on time-trends, regional patterns, and class differences in height. The major phenomena discovered to date are the early achievement of near-modern stature, the downward cycle in stature for cohorts born around 1830 to near the end of the century, the height advantages of the West and the South, and the remarkably small stature of slave children. The secular decline in height is puzzling for economic historians because it clashes with firm beliefs that the mid-nineteenth century was an era of economic prosperity. I establish a framework for reconciling these conflicting views on the course of living standards and discuss possible explanations for the height patterns noted in the paper.
Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0024
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