States of Despair

When you think about the idea of progress as a people and as a nation, one factor that is always looked to is mortality rates. An increase in average life expectancy is an indication that a nation is doing something very right. In the United States, we have come to expect it. For the past century, thanks to things like modern medicine, antibiotics, sanitation, and improved hygiene, average lifespans in developed countries more than doubled. The mortality rates for African-American’s have continued to fall (although they are still the highest), and hispanics have the best mortality rate of all (meaning that the are living he longest out of everyone in the United States). But in an unexpected turn of events, beginning in the 1990s, mortality rates for non-Hispanic white Americans began to move in the wrong direction. Two researchers from Princeton University, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, wanted to find out why this was so. What they found, was that this is a phenomenon unique to the United States, and unique to non-Hispanic whites. It is affecting both men and women at the same rate, and it is true for both city and rural areas all across 47 out of 50 states (New York, New Jersey, and California are the only exceptions). So what exactly is driving this trend? For non-Hispanic whites, each successive birth cohort, meaning each successive decade of births, are experiencing higher mortality rates due to what is being called “deaths of despair.” Deaths of despair is a term used to describe deaths by drugs, alcohol, or suicide. This, combined with a slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, which are the two largest killers of middle aged people, means that for the first time in a century, young white non-Hispanic individuals are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. One final caveat to this phenomenon, is that the trend is most pronounced among those non-Hispanic whites with less than a college degree.

Interestingly, when you look county by county at the fraction of people who voted for Trump, and the fraction of people dying from deaths of despair, those two variables are very, very highly correlated. This calls into question the assumption that the vast majority of liberals make when discussing the Trump movement; that it is a movement driven mainly by racism. For instance, historian Carol Anderson argued in a 2016 interview with Politico that for whites, “if you’ve always been privileged, equality begins to look like oppression.” I am not arguing that the average Trump supporter is not more racist than a non-Trump supporter, but I do think the argument that the Trump movement is by and large driven by racism is missing the much bigger issue. Perceived oppression isn’t what is driving up mortality rates and a general sense of hopelessness among non-Hispanic whites with less than a bachelors degree. Among this population exists a pessimism, and sense of hopelessness about the future, and for good reason. Where as it used to be the case, that one did not need a college education to make a decent living and support a family, it is not the case today. Deaton illustrates this point;

“In the past, people with low levels of education could get a job in a factory and work their way up the chain of command. You could graduate high school, work at Bethlehem Steel, get more money every year as you get more experienced, and turn yourself into one of the famed blue-collar aristocrats of the 1970s. Now, there’s a feeling that life has gone, and remainders of that life are getting less and less for each generation.”

But it’s not just about decreasing income. Researchers think that adding to a decreasing income, is a decreasing expectation that one’s life is going to be better than that of their parents. In the post-WWII ear, in addition to a booming economy, the federal government made a healthy and thriving middle class possible with GI bills, which meant the average white American could get both a mortgage and an education — both of which appear out of reach for a large swath of working Americans today.

This somewhat explains why we don’t see the same increase in mortality rates among blacks and hispanics. To put it bluntly, minorities have not historically had the same high expectations as whites; the expectation of a decent paying job with or without a college education, the expectation of owning a nice home in a good neighborhood, the expectation of good schools for your children, the expectation of upward mobility. Yet today for many minority groups, prospects for the future are hopeful, and the new expectation is that they are likely to do better than their parents. Wage growth has been better in the last 15 to 20 years for African americans and Hispanics. Don’t get me wrong. This growth still does not equal equality. In reality, the prospects and opportunities for non-Hispanic whites are still better on average than that of minorities. Racism is still very much an issue, and the average white person still makes more money for doing the same job as the average minority. But again, amongst many minority populations there is a general expectation that prospects and economic opportunities are improving. Amongst these populations, there is still hope of progress, in multiple senses of the word, and this is just not the case for non-Hispanic whites without college degrees.


One thought on “States of Despair

  1. I was not aware of the rising mortality rates for non-Hispanic Whites until reading this all though based on the information you presented it makes sense. I also find the correlation between those experiencing a higher mortality rate and those who voted for Trump to be quite intriguing. It reminds me of a book I read last semester called Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. In this book, published in 1998, Rorty predicted the rise of a far-right politician supported by working class Whites. I believe the phenomena involving “deaths of despair” amongst blue-collar Whites is pertinent to understanding why Trump got elected.


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