Can partisan politics kill you? Yes – or boost health, studies say By AKILAH JOHNSON • Washington Post
As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its third full winter, two studies reveal an uncomfortable truth: The toxicity of partisan politics is fueling an overall increase in mortality rates for working-age Americans.
In one study, researchers concluded that people living in more conservative parts of the United States disproportionately bore the burden of illness and death linked to COVID-19. The other, which looked at health outcomes more broadly, found that the more conservative a state's policies, the shorter the lives of working-age people.
The reasons are many, but, increasingly, it is state — and not just federal — policies that have begun to shape the economic, family, environmental and behavioral circumstances that affect people's well-being. Some states have expanded their social safety nets, raising minimum wages and offering earned income tax credits while using excise taxes to discourage behaviors — such as smoking — that have deleterious health consequences. Other states have moved in the opposite direction.
Researchers say the result of this growing polarization is clear: The nation's overall health profile is going from bad to worse.Americans can expect to live as long as they did in 1996 — 76.1 years, with life spans truncated by higher rates of chronic illnesses, deaths in childbirth and COVID.
"I'm not doing this research to be partisan, simplistically supporting one party or another," said Nancy Krieger, a social epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author on one of the two studies. "This is about looking at the behavior of different actors, some of whom have a lot more power than others to set standards, make demands and allocate resources."
Krieger said it is fair for people to ask their elected officials, "Are you doing what you should to protect our health?"
Harvard researchers analyzed data on COVID-19 mortality rates and the stress on hospital intensive care units across all 435 congressional districts from April 2021 to March 2022. They also examined congressional members' overall voting records and whether the governor's office and legislature of a state were controlled by one party.
The study, published this month in the Lancet Regional Health-Americas, found that the more conservative the voting records of members of Congress and state legislators, the higher the age-adjusted COVID mortality rates — even after taking into account the racial, education and income characteristics of each congressional district along with vaccination rates.
The division in American politics has grown increasingly caustic and polarized, but it wasn't always this way.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, there were major investments to improve the lives of vulnerable people nationwide. The Social Security Act of 1935. Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Before these federal programs, the nation was a hodgepodge of state programs that varied widely, said University of Washington political scientist Jake Grumbach, a co-author of a study on the effects of state policy on the mortality of working-age adults published in October in the journal PLOS One.
The report found that if all states implemented liberal policies on the environment, gun safety, criminal justice, health and welfare, labor, marijuana, and economic and tobacco taxes, more than 170,000 lives would have been saved in 2019. On the flip side, if states went with conservative versions of those policies, there would have been about 217,000 more deaths that year . Midterm ballot initiatives showed the direct role voters can play in determining state health policy. South Dakota voters passed a measure to expand Medicaid, joining voters in six other states who previously insisted a wider pool of people be eligible for health insurance than allowed under the Affordable Care Act.