The Link Between Debt and Death

People die more often in states with low average incomes and where more people have debt in collection

By Brandon Ballenger

This map shows U.S. crude mortality rates — how many people per 100,000 died in a year — and median incomes from 2013. Hover your cursor over a state to see how it ranks for both, and click a state for details. Check it out, then see our analysis below.

We got mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, median income from the Census Bureau, and debt collection data from the Urban Institute (which got it from TransUnion).

State Mortality rank Income rank State Mortality rank Income rank State Mortality rank Income rank
West Virginia 1 48 Florida 18 39 Wyoming 35 13
Alabama 2 47 Indiana 19 34 Idaho 36 38
Arkansas 3 49 Vermont 20 20 Maryland 37 1
Mississippi 4 50 Kansas 21 27 Nevada 38 26
Maine 5 35 Wisconsin 22 24 New York 39 16
Pennsylvania 6 22 Oregon 23 28 Arizona 40 30
Oklahoma 7 41 North Dakota 24 19 Virginia 41 8
Kentucky 8 46 Delaware 25 15 Minnesota 42 9
Ohio 9 32 North Carolina 26 40 Georgia 43 33
Tennessee 10 42 Nebraska 27 25 Hawaii 44 4
Missouri 11 37 South Dakota 28 29 Washington 45 14
Montana 12 36 Connecticut 29 5 Texas 46 23
Iowa 13 21 New Hampshire 30 7 California 47 10
Louisiana 14 43 Massachusetts 31 6 Colorado 48 12
Michigan 15 31 New Mexico 32 45 Utah 49 11
South Carolina 16 44 Illinois 33 17 Alaska 50 2
Rhode Island 17 18 New Jersey 34 3 Data correlation r = -0.6717

Analysis

A new Pew Charitable Trusts report highlights the financial fragility of Americans — less than half of households have enough money saved to replace one month of income in case of job loss. A similar number are spending everything they make or more, and 8 percent are “debt-challenged,” meaning their payments are more than 41 percent of their income.

“Despite the national recovery, most families feel vulnerable and stressed, and could not withstand a serious financial emergency,” the report says.

We were interested in the correlation between the stress of debt and well-being, since previous academic research has shown debt has a negative impact on mental health and is associated with several health risks.

Using data correlation functions in Microsoft Excel, we saw a weak positive relationship (r=0.2587) between state mortality rates and the population with debt in collections. But we found a much stronger negative relationship (r=-0.6717) between mortality and median (typical) income.

What does that mean? We don’t have to get technical. Even without looking at graphs or knowing how those numbers work, you can look at the table above and see what’s going on. A state like West Virginia has the highest mortality rate and nearly the lowest median income, while Alaska has the lowest mortality rate and the second-highest income. South Dakota is middle-of-the-road for both. Meanwhile the weaker relationship, which was positive, suggests mortality goes up as default on debt does.

 It’s worth noting the adage “correlation does not imply causation” — we’re not saying debt kills you or that being poor means you die sooner, because we don’t know that. (There’s a whole website dedicated to bizarre correlations.) But we’re pretty sure that debt isn’t good for your health.