What is the Value of a Human Life?
So, what value would you place on a year of human life? $50,000? Or maybe it’s $129,000? An article in Time, citing research from Stanford Business School, used data on the health care industry to come up with these estimates. By observing which expensive medical procedures are covered and which are not, and collecting data on how many years they add to the average patient’s life, the researchers were able to estimate the value of a year of life.
Or perhaps, as explained in The Huffington Post, it makes more sense to look at how toxins are regulated at the EPA, where the government agency has long relied on a “value of a statistical life” to make policy and regulatory decisions. The value has bounced around a little but is right around $8 million.
These estimates are surprisingly close if we consider an expectancy of around 80 years – both suggest an $8 to $10 million price tag placed by society on a human life in its entirety – provided that life is an American citizen. It’s not clear how the lives of foreign citizens are valued. During the Iraq war, condolence payments by the US Department of Defense to the families of civilian bystanders killed in that country averaged about $2,500, according to the Army Times.
At the extreme end of the scale, from the perspective of Bill Gates, perhaps the world’s largest donor working to reduce child mortality, some life-saving vaccines cost as little as 23 cents per person (as explained in Forbes). A different approach to the same math, again concerning the vaccine programs of the Gates Foundation, comes up with a total cost of about $500 to save a child’s life (see the article in the New York Times).
The Children’s Prize is a contest where $1 million is offered to save the lives of as many children under age 5 as possible. The contest administrators do not presume to know how many lives can be saved for this sum, but they do require that these exact same lives would otherwise be very likely lost if not for the Prize. For the Children’s Prize, a child’s life is a child’s life, independent of nationality, gender, ethnicity, or creed.
In trying to predict the number of beneficiaries of the Prize, the range seems enormous. The contest is open to the entire world, and it’s hard not to assume that poorer countries will offer opportunities to save more lives for less money, when compared to richer countries.
Finalists for the Children’s Prize will be announced this summer; check the website for regular updates.