Komlos, John; Lauderdale, Benjamin E. (November 2006): Underperformance in affluence: the remarkable relative decline in American heights in the second half of the 20th-century. Münchener Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Beiträge (VWL) 2006-33




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 US adult population and compare them to those of Western- and Northern-Europeans. Method: Regression analysis is used to estimate the trend in US heights stratified by gender and ethnicity holding income and educational attainment constant. Results: US heights have stabilized at mid-century and a perio0d of stagnation set in with the birth cohorts 1955-74, concurrent with continual rapid increases in heights in Western and Northern Europe. The American population had been the tallest in the world for two centuries until World War II, but by the end of the 20th century fell behind many of their European counterparts. Only since the most recent birth cohorts 1975-83 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 American health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net might be the reason why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income. The comparative pattern bears some similarly to that of life expectancy insofar as the US is also lagging behind in that respect.