recently, I’ve encountered the odd, neo-con/libertarian meme that says that quality of life improved more in the 19th century than in the 20th century, because the 19th century was more libertarian and less socialist than the 20th. To me, that does not sound right, on so many levels. So, I went digging for some statistics, just to see what the numbers say.
The first indicator I checked was life expectancy changes in the USA. I’ll split the data by gender and race, because that’s how the data is split up, and because the numbers aren’t evenly available. Also, most of the data is unfortunately only available for 1850 and later, except for northern US white males in 1800, where the life expectancy is listed as 36 years (and judging from the data for 1750 and 1700 showing southern life expectancy to be lower than northern (tropical diseases?), I’m guessing it was still lower in 1800 as well1. In another source2, Table 5 lists the life expectancy in the US in 1820 as 39 (I’m willing to bet that’s not including slaves, though). Anyway according to available data3, in 1850, life expectancy for whites was as follows: men 38.3 at birth/48 at 10 years, women 40.5/47.2; in 1900, it was men 58.2/50.6, women 51.1/52.2; in 1950 it was men 66.3/59, women 72/64.3; in 2000 it was men 74.8/65.4, women 80/70.5 Roughly then,the 50-year-increases were, between 1800 and 1850 apparently not noticeable, as far as the available data goes; between 1850-1900, it was 20 years at birth/2 years at 10 years for men, 11/5 years for women; between 1900 and 1950 it was 8/9 years for men, 21/12 years for women; between 1950 and 2000 it was 8/6 for both men and women.
For non-whites, the data only starts at 1900. However, life-expectancy for non-white men increased from 32.5/41.9 in 1900 to 58.9/53 in 1950 and 68.3/59.6 in 2000, while for women it increased from 35/42 in 1900 to 62.7/56.2 in 1950 and 75/66.2 in 2000. For the 19th century to match those rates, all non-whites would have had to have been murdered at birth in the years 1800-1850 (for completeness sake, the only datapoint I found for life expectancy of black Americans was for 1850 and was 23 at birth, most likely due the abysmal infant mortality rates4)
So, to sum it up: looks like in the USA, 1850-1900 was good for white infant boys, while 1900-1950 was great for everybody else. Call me biased, but I’m handing this round to the first half of the 20th century.
Now, let’s look at Britain, for comparison. For some reason, I’ve been unable to find such nicely detailed data for Britain, but what little I did find, mirrors the story in the US: one ghastly little chart (written in Comic Sans, FFS!) for school children noted life expectancy in 1750 as 31 for men and 33 for women, and in 1900 as 45 for men and 48 for women5. The aforementioned table 5, being an international comparison, lists UK life expectancy as 40 in 1820, 50 in 1900, 69 in 1950, and 77 in 1999. And lastly, a government source lists the life expectancy at birth in 1900 for men at 45 and women at 49, and in 1999 at 75 for men and 80 for women6. So, it looks like the 20th century wins in Britain, too.
Now, let’s look at some other data:
GDP per capita (Measured in 1990 international dollars) was $1707 in 1820, $4921 in 1913, and $18714 in 1998 in Britain; in the USA, it was $1257 in 1820, $5301 in 1913, and $27331 in 1998; the average height for US men was 172.9cm in 1800, 170cm in 1900, and 177.4 in 1970 7. For education in the US, data is available once again only from 1850 on. The percentages of 5-19-year-olds enrolled in school were as follows: in 1850, it was 59% for white men and 53.3% for white women, and 2% for non-white men and 1.8% for non-white women; in 1900, it was 53.4% for white men and 53.9% for white women, and 29.4% for non-white men and 32.8% for non-white women; in 1950, it was 79.7% for white men and 78.9% for white women, and 74.7% for non-white men and 74.9% for non-white women; in 1990, it was around 92% for everyone8.
At this point, I could dredge up statistics on other specific living conditions (which, yes, did improve some over the course of the 19th century; generally with the passage of laws forbidding some atrociousness or another) like eradication of diseases, better working hours, etc. However, I’ve now pretty much lost interest in continuing. People’s lifespans have improved, famines are unheard of, people have more money and better education. And all of it improved more in the 20th century than in the 19th. So, Libertarians and neo-cons are wrong. Anyone surprised?