Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 25, 2020

The United States currently ranks last among high‑income countries for life expectancy. Since 2014, U.S. life expectancy has declined. By now, these alarming trends are well known to researchers, the public, and policymakers. Nevertheless, there is no consensus among researchers on the causes of the trends, and there has been no serious and effective bipartisan effort to solve the problem. The dominant narrative has implicated Americans’ behaviors, such as smoking, illicit drug use, and suicide; yet, this narrative is misguided and counterproductive. It also exonerates the key structural drivers of behaviors and health, namely the U.S. policy context and the outsized influence of corporations and big donors on those policies. The U.S. policy context has changed dramatically since the 1970s, particularly at the state level. State policies have hyperpolarized along partisan lines. These changes have likely had a profound impact on nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives, cutting short many of them. Consequently, this essay argues that state policies increasingly affect life and death in the United States. It raises concerns about how the polarization of state policies will further deteriorate the health of many Americans. It points to three significant forces behind the polarization and the growing importance of state policy contexts on Americans’ lives—(1) New Federalism; (2) the new type of state preemption laws; and (3) the emergence of organizations, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, through which corporations and big donors influence policies.

This essay is adapted from a presentation in the Center's 10th anniversary symposium in September 2019.