Two prominent economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, made national headlines when they reported in 2015 the spike in mortality among midlife white Americans since 1999, higher than the death rates of blacks, Hispanics, and Europeans.
This time, Case and Deaton said the steady rise of deaths among white working-class Americans could have its roots to the not-so-rosy opportunities for the less-educated as they enter the job market.
The new study, Case said, has identified a “sea of despair” behind the gloomy outlook among the white working class, compounded by other social issues such as family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity, and other pathologies.
The salient characteristic of this “sea of despair” is the uptick of physical pain as job prospects continue to decline over time.
“You used to be able to get a really good job with a high school diploma. A job with on-the-job training, a job with benefits,” she said.
Signs Of Stress And Physical Pain
Another possible sign of stress and physical pain is the rising cases of obesity, Case pointed out.
“The people want to soothe the beast. They may do that with alcohol…they may do that with food,” she said.
Deaton also said the swelling ground of disappointments among the white working class could trigger suicide.
“Your family life has fallen apart, you don’t know your kids anymore, all the things you expected…haven’t happened at all,” he explained.
The study found there is an uptick of suicide cases affecting both sexes with no high school degree. The deaths due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide among white Americans are scattered across the nation.
Both Case and Deaton noted that suicide cases in 2000 were high in the southwest, then it spread to Appalachia, Florida and the west coast by mid-2000.
These deaths of despair, which are all over the country today, they said, are associated with the general decline of economic and social well-being.
It Is Happening Across America
The two academics from Princeton said the pattern is happening across America.
They noted that educational attainment is important. Those with a college degree fared better in terms of health and happiness than those who did not finish college. And those who did not complete a college degree are better off than those who never went.
The less-educated white Americans, the researchers said, are likely to acquire what they termed as “cumulative disadvantage” in the long run as they suffered in the job market during their early adulthood. This accumulation of negative experience had resulted in health and personal problems with the following symptomatic effect: drug overdoses, liver disease due to alcohol problem, and suicide.
“Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s,” they concluded.
The authors will present their paper at the Brookings Institution on Friday, March 24.
The study, which is part of the Spring 2017 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, was published on March 23.
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