The Poor and the Dead: Socioeconomic Status and Mortality in the U.S., 1850-1860
NBER Historical Working Paper No. 135
Despite the significant research on aggregate trends in mortality and physical stature in the middle of the nineteenth century, little evidence on the individual-level characteristics associated with premature mortality has been presented. This essay describes a new project that links individuals from the mortality schedules to the population schedules of the 1850 and 1860 federal population censuses. This makes it possible to assess the link between individual and household characteristics and the probability of dying. The results reveal a strong and negative relationship between household wealth and mortality in 1850 and 1860 and a somewhat weaker negative relationship between occupational status and mortality in 1850. The findings suggest that even when the U.S. population was largely rural and agricultural, changes in the distribution of income and wealth would have had a large impact on mortality rates and life expectancies. Urbanization merely exacerbated already existing disparities in mortality by socioeconomic status.