As described in an earlier post, there was a long period during America’ nineteenth-century economic growth in which progress was so uneven, so unequal that the height and life spans of Americans declined for a few decades. On average, those who were born between roughly 1830 and 1870 grew up a bit shorter and lived a bit shorter lives than those born before and after. Wealthier Americans’ children, however, did not suffer this setback.
The “antebellum puzzle” of widespread GDP growth but worsening lives for average Americans is explained, in part, by the increasing spread of disease among an urbanizing and traveling people and even more by a reduction in nutritious food for children. Growing national and international demand drove up the price of foods like milk and meat and even led farmers to divert their production from feeding their families to selling crops on the global market. The unevenness of developing commerce helps explain the unequal pattern of height loss.1
This history raises for us the question of whether the recent expansion of inequality since the 1970s is creating its own, modern version of the “antebellum puzzle.”