"Deaths of Despair" (deaths due to suicide, drugs, and alcohol) has risen sharply since 1999 among middle-aged Whites in the United States. And it is happening uniquely in this country -- with other developed nations showing a drop in those deaths or a leveling off in those deaths. That's the results shown in a new study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton published in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity
Why is this happening in the United States, and not in other developed countries? It's because the United States is the only developed country adhering to the "trickle-down" economic policy (the policy that says whatever is good for the rich and corporations is good for all Americans). That policy has tilted the economic playing field to favor the rich and corporations. And it has resulted in stagnant wages and more job insecurity for all other Americans -- a fact that is particularly devastating among middle-aged Whites.
Here is some of what Case and Deaton had to say about their report:
Angus Deaton: Mortality rates have been going down forever. There's been a huge increase in life expectancy and reduction in mortality over 100 years or more, and then for all of this to suddenly go into reverse [for whites ages 45 to 54], we thought it must be wrong. We spent weeks checking out numbers because we just couldn't believe that this could have happened, or that if it had, someone else must have already noticed. It seems like we were right and that no one else had picked it up.
We knew the proximate causes — we know what they were dying from. We knew suicides were going up rapidly, and that overdoses mostly from prescription drugs were going up, and that alcoholic liver disease was going up. The deeper questions were why those were happening — there's obviously some underlying malaise, reasons for which we [didn't] know.
Anne Case: These deaths of despair have been accompanied by reduced labor force participation, reduced marriage rates, increases in reports of poor health and poor mental health. So we are beginning to thread a story in that it's possible that [the trend is] consistent with the labor market collapsing for people with less than a college degree. In turn, those people are being less able to form stable marriages, and in turn that has effects on the kind of economic and social supports that people need in order to thrive.
In general, the longer you're in the labor force, the more you earn — in part because you understand your job better and you're more efficient at your job, you've had on-the-job training, you belong to a union, and so your wages go up with age. That's happened less and less the later and later you've been born and the later you enter this labor market.
Deaton: We're thinking of this in terms of something that's been going on for a long time, something that's emerged as the iceberg has risen out of the water. We think of this as part of the decline of the white working class. If you go back to the early '70s when you had the so-called blue-collar aristocrats, those jobs have slowly crumbled away and many more men are finding themselves in a much more hostile labor market with lower wages, lower quality and less permanent jobs. That's made it harder for them to get married. They don't get to know their own kids. There's a lot of social dysfunction building up over time. There's a sense that these people have lost this sense of status and belonging. And these are classic preconditions for suicide.
Case: The rates of suicide are much higher among men [than women]. And drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver death are higher among men, too. But the [mortality] trends are identical for men and women with a high School Degree or less. So we think of this as people, either quickly with a gun or slowly with drugs and alcohol, are killing themselves. Under that body count there's a lot of social dysfunction that we think ultimately we may be able to pin to poor job prospects over the life course.
Deaton: Hispanics [have always had lower mortality rates] than whites. It's a bit of a puzzle that's not fully resolved, to put it mildly. It's always been true that mortality rates have been higher and life expectancy shorter for African-Americans than for whites. What is happening now is that gap is closing and, for some groups, it's actually crossed. What we see in the new work is if you compare whites with a high school degree or less, at least their mortality rates are now higher than mortality rates for African-Americans as a whole. If you compare whites with a high school degree or less with blacks with a high school degree or less, their mortality rates have converged. It's as if poorly educated whites have now taken over from blacks as the lowest rung of society in terms of mortality rates.