To the extent that there was any doubt that America’s white working class is in crisis, a new study has raised a sobering alarm.
After falling for decades, the death rate among middle-aged white people, particularly those with no more than a high school education, turns out to have been soaring since 1999 – a reversal unheard of for any other demographic group in a developed nation.
The two Princeton economists whose analysis was released Monday found that for the past 15 years, mortality rates for whites age 45 to 54 without a college education have risen dramatically even as life spans have improved for other races and ethnic groups and for whites in other advanced countries.
And the culprits aren’t the usual baby boom generation killers – heart disease, obesity, diabetes. Rather, the study found, the rise appears to be driven by an epidemic of pain and heartbreak – midlife suicide, heroin and prescription drug abuse, alcoholism and liver disease.
The study’s implications are stark, given the extent to which less-educated whites have been left behind in this high-tech, globalized era. As one of the authors, Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, told the Washington Post this week, “not only are these people struggling economically, but they’re experiencing this health catastrophe, too, so they’re being hammered twice.”
Human frailty may be epidemic, but surely it is also no surprise that a generation raised with the expectation of a secure future might sink into depression, hostility, illness, anguish and rage when that future fails to transpire.
Deaton and fellow economics professor Anne Case, to whom he is married, found that though black Americans once were more likely than whites to die in middle age of drug overdose, cirrhosis of the liver and other addiction-related ailments, such deaths are more common among middle-aged white people. The white suicide rate, they found, was four times that of blacks.
At the same time, they found, middle-aged whites report more pain of all kinds, from chronic back and neck ailments to an inability to climb stairs, or walk around the block or work or shop or socialize.
The economists noted that the remedy of choice for much of that pain – prescription narcotics – not only has exploded, but has been made much more available in pharmacies in white neighborhoods.
Some 500,000 lives have been cut short by this trend, the economists estimated, a death toll that, in that time frame, is about equal to that of AIDS.
If ever a set of numbers cried out for deeper examination, it is this one. Human frailty may be epidemic, but surely it is also no surprise that a generation raised with the expectation of a secure future might sink into depression, hostility, illness, anguish and rage when that future fails to transpire.
Whether the solution is better jobs, cheaper schools, more mental health care, less reliance on painkillers or a tighter hold on instruments of quick suicide – guns, for example – the distress of America’s white working class has become a public health crisis. It must be addressed. When someone dies, a whole world goes with them, and we have let a half-million worlds self-destruct in what should have been the prime of their lives.