Life expectancy in the U.S. has been stagnating for over a decade, with coastal and metropolitan areas experiencing life expectancy gains far above those in interior and nonmetropolitan parts of the country. A $2.6 million grant awarded to Jessica Y. Ho, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State and Social Science Research Institute cofunded faculty member, will explore how migration contributes to geographic inequalities in life expectancy.
The groundbreaking project will aim to capture both the direct and spillover effects of migration on life expectancy using newly available Census data and an innovative methodology.
“This project will be the first to estimate the spillover effects of migrants on the life expectancy of non-migrants using a causal approach and will examine how migration contributes to life expectancy not only within the U.S. but also between the U.S. and its high-income peer countries,” said Ho.
Migration can influence life expectancy through both direct and indirect pathways. “Since migrants tend to be healthier than their non-migrant counterparts, their lower latent mortality risk may directly contribute to higher life expectancy levels in the areas in which they settle,” Ho said.
The five-year, National Institute on Aging funded project is a joint endeavor with Arun S. Hendi, assistant professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. In their prior work, the researchers showed that U.S. immigrants have among the highest life expectancies of any large population in the world and that their low mortality levels have prevented life expectancy from declining significantly in recent decades.
"Because non-coastal and nonmetropolitan parts of the country have a more difficult time attracting migrants, their life expectancy levels have not been able to similarly benefit. Migrants can also indirectly affect the life expectancy levels of non-migrants in these areas, which we can think of as “spillover effects,” said Ho.
“Migrants change the characteristics of the communities in which they live. They often work in or adjacent to the health care sector, potentially leading to easier access to and higher quality of care. By increasing contributions to the local tax base and stimulating economic activity, they may drive improvements in infrastructure, public safety, and the provision of government services," Ho added.
Migration can also lead to the diffusion and adoption of healthier behaviors since migrants themselves tend to practice these behaviors, said Ho. This project will be the first to estimate these spillover effects.
In addition to examining how migration influences U.S. mortality levels, the research team will also study the effect of migration on life expectancy in a set of high-income peer countries.
“While we’re used to thinking of the U.S. as an immigrant nation, in fact, many other high-income countries have a higher proportion of foreign-born people. This has been driven by high volumes of immigration in recent decades. These trends could explain some of the differences in life expectancy between the U.S. and these countries,” said Ho.
Migration is reshaping the demography of the U.S. and of many other countries around the world. The researchers hope the project will help inform policy addressing the questions of why U.S. life expectancy is stagnating and what can be done about the rising disparities within the country.