Peter Ferrara

Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon note in their underappreciated work, It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years, that in the last century,1900 to 2000, real per capita GDP in America grew by nearly 7 times, meaning the American standard of living grew by that much as well. The authors explain,

“It is hard for us to imagine, for example, that in 1900 less than one in five homes had running water, flush toilets, a vacuum cleaner, or gas or electric heat. As of 1950 fewer than 20 percent of homes had air conditioning, a dishwasher, or a microwave oven. Today between 80 and 100 percent of American homes have all of these modern conveniences.

Indeed, in 1900 only 2% of homes in America enjoyed electricity. As Cox and Alm note further in their insightful Myths of Rich and Poor, “Homes aren’t just larger. They’re also much more likely to be equipped with central air conditioning, decks and patios, swimming pools, hot tubs, ceiling fans, and built in kitchen appliances. Fewer than half of the homes built in 1970 had two or more bathrooms; by 1997, 9 out of 10 did.”

Such economic growth produced dramatic improvements in personal health as well. Throughout most of human history, a typical lifespan was 25 to 30 years, as Moore and Simon report. But “from the mid-18th century to today, life spans in the advanced countries jumped from less than 30 years to about 75 years.” Average life expectancy in the U.S. has grown by more than 50% since 1900. Infant mortality declined from 1 in 10 back then to 1 in 150 today. Children under 15 are at least 10 times less likely to die, as one in four did during the 19th century, with their death rate reduced by 95%. The maternal death rate from pregnancy and childbirth was also 100 times greater back then than today.

Moore and Simon report, “Just three infectious diseases – tuberculosis, pneumonia, and diarrhea – accounted for almost half of all deaths in 1900.” Today, we have virtually eliminated or drastically reduced these and other scourges of infectious disease that have killed or crippled billions throughout human history, such as typhoid fever, cholera, typhus, plague, smallpox, diphtheria, polio, influenza, bronchitis, whooping cough, malaria, and others. Besides the advances in the development and application of modern health sciences, this has resulted from the drastic reduction in filthy and unsanitary living conditions that economic growth has made possible as well. More recently, great progress is being made against heart disease and cancer.


Peter Ferrara

Peter Ferrara is General Counsel for the American Civil Rights Union, a Senior Fellow at the Carleson Center for Public Policy and a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.