I've been in the news business a long time, and there some days I can get pretty jaded about the headlines, as if I've seen everything. But some days there's a headline that makes me bolt upright and take notice. When you're a middle-aged white dude like me, you're bound to pay attention when the New York Times reports: "Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds."
After stopping to check my pulse, I read this:
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.
That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and Anne Case. Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.
The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case found.
So, yes, class is also a big part of it: Working-class, middle-aged whites in particular are driving the problem. Death rates for middle-aged males in America who are African-American or Latino have continued to fall; one theory is that minority men are used to The Struggle, while blue-collar whites -- who had it pretty good for several decades after World War II (when labor unions were a lot stronger, ahem, cough cough...) -- don't know what hit 'em in the 21st Century.
Anyway, the science prompted a Great Debate as to why: The Elevator Version of the debate is that conservatives blame the 1960s, basically...permissiveness, lack of religion, etc. (Although in our modern world, I'm not exactly sure why it's only hippies causing people to question the existence of God, but I digress...) while liberals blame the lack of jobs, income inequality, etc.
Philly's own Joel Mathis (a liberal...who knew?) and conservative Ben Boychuk had an interesting point-counterpoint column on this.
A high school diploma is worthless, and many college degrees are headed that direction. Family disintegration remains widespread. Religion, once a source of community support, continues to wane as more Americans identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious." And pop culture is a wasteland. Nihilism is in the very air we breathe.
When you have nothing to believe in but yourself, and your life is a misery, then it's hardly surprising that many men — unemployed, childless, aimless — turn to booze, drugs, video games, porn or whatever else dulls the pain.
No, Barack Obama isn't responsible for the rising death rate among middle-aged whites. But Ronald Reagan might be.
It was under Reagan, after all, that a staggering rise in income inequality among Americans became more pronounced and stayed that way. Simply put: For more than 30 years, the rich among us have been getting richer while the rest of us have been treading water, financially. That widening gap can be attributed, in large part, to a series of Republican-led policy innovations since the Gipper, including massive tax cuts for the rich and laws that make it more difficult for unions to organize and represent the interests of workers.