SF State professor receives $2.5 million grant to study New Deal’s health impact

Workers in a trench build a sewer

Civil Works Administration workers in Minnesota repair a sewer. Credit: FDR Presidential Library and Museum

Results could steer public policy during future economic downturns

From your neighborhood school to your local park, there’s a chance you pass a remnant of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program every day, says San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Economics Sepideh Modrek. “One point two billion school lunches served, 650 miles of new or improved roads laid, 124,000 new or improved bridges, 39,000 schools built, much of the South was electrified,” said Modrek, rattling off figures showing the program’s massive reach.

But not every legacy of the New Deal — FDR’s ambitious stimulus effort intended to lift America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s — is so easy to see. That’s why Modrek and Stanford University Assistant Professor of Medicine David Rehkopf are launching a major new effort to study the New Deal’s lingering effects. With support from a $2.5 million five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, they’ll study health outcomes for children whose parents benefited from New Deal programs.

As unemployment and poverty gripped the country during the Depression, parents who secured jobs through New Deal programs or lived in towns with substantial New Deal investments would have had more resources for their households, Modrek says.

“That may have shifted people’s health trajectories. So the question we’re asking is, ‘If your parents were beneficiaries of New Deal programs, did that, 40 years later or 80 years later, affect mortality rates?” she said. The duo will look at other measures of health. “If it is really improving health, we would expect to see some differences in things like whether people claimed disability at work.”

Over the next few years, Modrek, Rehkopf and student researchers from SF State and Stanford University will comb through four different sources of data, including the 1940s U.S. Census. They’ll compare current health data to what people’s lives were like in childhood, Rehkopf adds.

“We can look at things like when electricity was installed in certain areas and see if that had an impact,” he said. “There were school lunch programs in some places. Did that have an effect on people? You can test them against each other to see what kind of interventions had the biggest impact.”

There are a lot of ways to make social services and public policies more effective for everyone, Rehkopf adds. These lessons from the past can help inform what’s happening now.

The final results of their study won’t be available until 2023, but the discovery of a noticeable change in people’s health could have implications for future policy decisions, Modrek says.

“For example, during the last recession there was quite an active debate over whether there should be direct federal employment programs like the New Deal. The Obama administration ultimately decided not to go this route, saying it would be both politically and financially costly,” she said. “Had they had evidence that there would be long-term ramifications for a generation of kids born during that period, their decision-making process may have been different.”