Underperformance in Affluence: The Remarkable Relative Decline in U.S. Heights in the Second Half of the 20th Century


  • *Direct correspondence to John Komlos, Department of Economics, University of Munich, Ludwigstr. 33/IV, 80539 Munich, Germany 〈John.Komlos@gmx.de〉. Data and coding information are available on request from the authors.


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 U.S. adult population and compare them to those of western and northern Europeans.

Method. Regression analysis is used to estimate the trend in U.S. heights stratified by gender and ethnicity, holding income and educational attainment constant.

Results. U.S. heights stabilized at mid-century and a two-decade period of stagnation set in with the birth cohorts 1955–1974, concurrent with continual rapid increases in heights in western and northern Europe. Americans had been the tallest in the world for (more than) two centuries until World War II, but by the end of the 20th century fell behind many European populations. Only since the most recent birth cohorts 1975–1983 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 U.S. health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net, might be why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income alone. The comparative pattern bears some similarly to that of life expectancy insofar as the United States is also lagging behind in that respect.