SF State, Stanford receive $2.5 million NIH grant for joint study of New Deal’s health impact

San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Economics Sepideh Modrek and Stanford University Assistant Professor of Medicine David Rehkopf have received a $2.5 million five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, to study the long-term health impact of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s “New Deal.” A response to the Great Depression then gripping the country, the New Deal launched thousands of public works projects and social programs, some of which might still be improving Americans’ lives today.

“The scale was massive,” Modrek said. “More than one billion school lunches were 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.”

With unemployment and poverty rampant during the Great 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 San Francisco State and Stanford 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 could 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.”