The Cost of a Human Life

The United States government currently estimates the cost of one human life to be 10 million dollars.1 This evaluated cost does not vary per person. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, geographical location, socioeconomic status, nor any other factor, the economic cost of one human life remains $10,000,000. This number is essential. The economic cost of a single human life is a significant determining factor for policy, legal, and regulatory decision making. During a time of government-mandated social-distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, this economic cost is hugely important to answering the 10 million dollar question: When will the United States reopen for business? 

Before I offer any personal critique, allow me to take a moment to run the numbers.

According to the Center for Disease Control, depending on how the United States responds to the coronavirus, we could see anywhere between 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths.2 Given the estimated economic cost of a human’s life, this potential amount of death could cost the US between 2 to 17 trillion dollars. For comparison, the United States Federal Government spent a total of 4.45 trillion dollars in 2019.3 As of April 19, 2020, the United States has lost a total of 37,202 lives bringing the total economic cost to 372.02 billion dollars.4 That cost of lives is more than the federal government spent in 2019 for all of the following departments: Education, Energy Department, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, State Department, and Veteran Affairs.5

Total DeathsTotal Cost
Worst Case Scenario1,700,000$17,000,000,000,000
Best Case Scenario200,000$2,000,000,000,000
United States Current Death Total37,202$372,020,000,000
Kentucky Current Death Total148$1,480,000,000
Total US Financial Spending 2019$4,450,000,000,000

Every data point that the United States government has released details a continued rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. Each new infection increases the likelihood of another death. Each new death to the coronavirus is another 10 million dollars lost. While the people of the United States are hurting financially, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually a simply cost-benefit analysis shows that it would hurt the economy even more if we do not follow the CDC guidelines and reopen the government. The numbers are clear. The longer the government remains closed, the fewer lives lost; the less detrimental the effect of the coronavirus is to the US economy. 

While most of the United States remains closed for business, much of America’s minority residents are experiencing a higher rate of exposure and death rate. Of the total coronavirus deaths in the US, racial and ethnic information is currently available for only about 35%. While black Americans represent only about 13% of the population in the states reporting racial/ethnic information, they account for about 34% of total COVID-19 deaths in those states.6 Various states and cities are seeing even more staggering variations. In Louisiana, black people make up 70% of coronavirus deaths, but only 33% of the population.7 In Chicago, black residents are dying at nearly six times the rate of white residents.8 No matter how you examine the data, the statistics are disconcerting. 

In a country where every single human life is valued at 10 million dollars, how is it possible that such disparity exists? The short answer is that systemic inequality has caused discriminatory access to housing, healthcare, and employment that has historically disadvantaged the prosperity of non-white Americans. 

The long answer, however, speaks at deeper truths regarding the values that America upholds. In a country where “all men are created equal,” the value of the American Dollar holds higher esteem than the value of a human’s life. While America’s Judeo-Christian values may uphold the “Golden Rule,” America’s Capitalism is the “Gold Standard.”

Our daily prayer has become, “Do unto others as you would want to be done unto your pocketbook.” The all-mighty god of money overlooks the potentially rising death toll and begs us to ask the question, “When will the United States reopen for business?” The cost of closing our businesses bears a weight more cumbersome than the life of a person. Economic inequality in the United States and globally has been on the rise since the 1960s.9 This disparaging divide between the rich and the poor has created undue anxiety that has left people begging at the heels of a hedonistic golden rule.

The allure is captivating. Spring is upon us. We can feel a change in the air and pray that with this new season, the invisible shadow of the coronavirus will be cast away. It seems, however, that the darkness of the coronavirus will not fade as fast as we would hope. As the torment lingers, how then are we to respond? 

Rather than bashing against the cost of closed businesses, let us examine the cost of a human’s life. While economically, the sum of a human’s life is 10 million dollars, personally and spiritually, the cost of a human’s life is priceless. 

Each human life offers endless potential for hope and love. While COVID-19 has highlighted critical historical disparities in our society, the coronavirus also highlights the unity of all life. Each human person is interconnected. The air one person breaths in China can affect the air people breathe in every home on the globe.

From the child working in a sweat-factory, to CEO running a Fortune 500 Company.
From a black body lying on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, to the President of the United States. From an asylum-seeker trapped in a cage at the border, to a law student who just passed the bar exam.
From a nurse reporting to a shift knowing that their risk of exposure is imminent, to a sick person alone at home who cannot get tested nor receive proper treatment.
From a student stranded at their college dorm because they have no where else to live, to a teacher continuing their lessons online while also surrounded by kids of their own. 

This woven web of life reveals the truth that each and every single human life has incalculable value. While we may falter, the arc of humanity bends toward justice. Each person taps into a well of life that transcends the brief measure of time we have on Earth. The decisions made by the lives of those gathered on Earth today will effect the lives of people centuries later.

If today, we make the wrong decision to dig into our pocketbooks.
Then tomorrow, we will be digging the graves of our brothers and sisters. 

For more information on the history of the economic cost of a human life, check out Planet Money, Episode 991: Lives Vs. The Economy.

1. Viscusi, W. Kip. “How the Government Values Risks to Life.” In Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society, 23-44. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press, 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctvc772d8.5


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