Working Class White America is ‘Dying of Despair’

By Maggie Gallagher Published on March 27, 2017

Donald Trump is right. The health care issue is not going away. The ongoing slow-collapse of Obamacare guarantees that.

Let’s add fuel to the fire: the latest bad news from health experts. White Americans are privileged, academics tell us. Yet millions of whites are experiencing a rise in mortality rates formerly associated with failing countries. They’re enduring health collapse, a massive social failure, like what happened to Russians in the 1990s.

For most of my life, I’ve been hearing the same trope from progressives. “If only this” — insert social problem here — “were happening to ‘straight white males,’ America would declare it a national crisis.” Plug in mass incarceration, AIDS, poverty, drug use, unwanted pregnancy, and you’ve got your progressive op-ed.

Now white people are the victims. But not many seem to care. The latest data from a study by Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton came at a March 23-24 Brookings Institution conference. Its findings are stunning: Since 1998, death rates for middle-aged white people without college degrees are skyrocketing.

Less-schooled whites face an epidemic of “deaths of despair.” This means accidents, suicides, drug and alcohol overdoses, plus related chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure that increase the risk of heart disease.

Thankfully, mortality rates for less educated blacks and Hispanics are flat or declining. Middle-aged white people without college degrees are now more likely to die than African-Americans.

Whites without a college degree are not only dying more often. They feel worse, much of the time.

What’s going on? To find out, let’s rule out two possible explanations.

  • Income. Nope. Less educated (and hence lower income) Hispanics and African-Americans don’t face the same collapse in health as whites.
  • Race. Again, no dice. White Americans with college diplomas continue to see their mortality rates fall. In Europe, health stats keep improving for the less educated, whites included.

As Case and Deaton summarize:

[W]hite non-Hispanic mortality rates for those aged 45-54 increased from 1998 through 2013. … [Mainly to blame were] marked increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality in this period. … Mortality increases for whites in midlife were paralleled by morbidity increases, including deteriorations in self-reported physical and mental health, and rising reports of chronic pain.

This epidemic hit us recently and suddenly. Just in 1999 mortality rates of non-Hispanic, non-college whites were about 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks. By 2015, they were 30 percent higher. A big improvement in black health was accompanied by a surge in white deaths.

In 2000, the increase in less educated white death rates was concentrated in the southwest. Today it has spread countrywide.

Whites without a college degree are not only dying more often. They feel worse, much of the time. Compare how 50-year-old white college grads describe their health compared to non-grads: In 2015, 73 percent of grads reported their health as “excellent” or “very good.” Only 43 percent of non-grads said that.

What does it mean that “deaths of despair” are epidemic among blue collar white folks? Are they facing a crisis of meaning?

Their income troubles are well known: working class white men have not had a pay raise for two generations. These stagnant wages lead many to retreat from the work force.

Marriage rates have plummeted. Out of wedlock childbearing has increased. By the 1990s a divorce gap was already emerging: More divorces among less educated Americans, and fewer among the college educated.

The unwed motherhood gap is also growing: Women with college degrees are between 400 percent and 600 percent less likely to have children out of wedlock than women without diplomas.

So marriage and family have become less reliable sources of meaning in the lives of less educated whites. Church is becoming less important too.

Read the study, “No Money, No Honey, No Church.” Back in the 1980s less educated white Americans were as likely to attend religious services at least once a month as the college educated. Just 20 years later, a “church gap” emerged, as less-schooled whites drifted away.

Take away fruitful work, marriage, family, church and love of country, and people don’t flourish.

Set aside concern for souls for a moment. Being involved with your church imparts “social and civic skills … and higher levels of physical and psychological health … both by providing social support and by furnishing people with a sense of meaning,” the authors report. Take these away, and don’t be shocked at a huge spike in death of despair.

A third source of connection and meaning — patriotism — is also being taken away. The American story has been redefined over the last generation. Now what’s taught in schools is the story of our success at overcoming the prejudices of our white Founders. White Americans successful at work, school and love can deal with accusations of white privilege. They’re doing just fine. But since the 1960s the white working class has been the whipping boy of cultural elites. The left’s arguments skip the humanism of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. They draw on a new theory that only white people can be racists because power is derived from race.

Take away fruitful work, marriage, family, church and love of country, and people don’t flourish. Many crawl inside a bottle of bourbon or opioid pain pills. Some die of despair. Who’d have thought it?

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