This little essay in 1,000 words explains why one American demographic wallows in such deep despair that its life expectancy has been growing shorter. While addictions have largely been blamed, I argue that these stresses arise out of a loss in meaning by a culture caught in consumption.
Why are many White Americans living shorter lives? Over the past half-Century peoples’ life spans have been rising around the world except for war-torn or politically trapped countries. In late 2015, researchers reported that life expectancy was falling in middle America. It should have produced a shockwave, but it did not get media attention for 12 months.
The original report on falling life expectancy appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It was written by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, a powerful wife-husband team of economic professors from Princeton University. But the media failed to read their report seriously until the National Center for Health Statistics released a report, Mortality in the United States in late 2016. By that time, Trump had won the election and reporters were looking for explanations for his support among the voters.
In late March of 2017, a new chapter emerged in the sociological discovery that American life expectancy has been dropping among middle age, middle income, low education whites. Case and Deaton released a re-write of their early report through Brookings. Then Vox Media released a summary report suggesting some factors underlying the so-called collapse of white middle America. The chief idea they highlighted was that the prototypical Trump supporters were dying deaths of despair at a high rate, with the main route to mortality being suicide, opioid overdoses, obesity and alcoholic-related liver disease.
Professors Case and Deaton argued that these deaths of despair were not a simple function of insufficient income nor of rising costs of healthcare. Instead, they claim that a sense of hopelessness was bred from a long run stagnation in wages from those with little education, low income, and middle age.
The latest Case/Deaton report points out that the epidemic of deaths from despair is not occurring in other economically advanced countries, except for Russia in the early 1990s. During that serious drop in life expectancy, Russians were dying mainly of heart disease and alcoholism. Evidence of hopelessness and despair also can be found.
Furthermore, Professors Case and Deaton did not find hopeless despair among America racial minorities or those with college education. They further concluded that the despair arises not from comparing one’s economic status with others at one point in time, but from comparing their current family income across time to the higher income of earlier generations of their family members.
For the Vox article, Case and Deaton commented that the problem might largely be solved by legislating against prescription opioids. What neither of these economists nor the Vox writers seemed to recognize is that the tragic suffering and deaths of a specific American subgroup is not due to opioid addiction alone, but a host of other factors including loss of meaning in the lives of middle Americans.
When one wins the lottery, or starts a new, high-paying job, life has immediate meaningfulness due to the challenge and fun of spending large sums of money. But when the money dries up, one’s sense of life’s meaning may dry up. The constant barrage of advertisements to spend money on almost everything, in the context of declining family income, lack of health insurance, and no new income in sight, produces a state best described as a deficit in hope and meaning.
According to the Vox Media report, Deaton suggested that the problems of American self-destruction due to despair could be solved by legislation making it harder to get opioids. Given the near-failure of the war on drugs and the high rates of deaths from alcoholism, opioid bans are not likely to greatly improve the situation. The problem needs to be addressed by social safety net improvements on the one hand and on the other hand, instigating programs that encourage more and deeper community relationships.
Americans in the past few years have faced a vacuum in life meanings as the socio-political culture has shifted to the right. We have seen a revival of individualism and a revival of claims that providing social safety nets harms those that need our help. At the same time, due to job loss and low wages, the White lower middle class needs to have safety nets that help pay for rapidly-rising costs of healthcare and health insurance. To save face, this demographic group in the United States tends to reject government assistance and opposes assistance of any kind to others.
Without a moral responsibility to help others in one’s community, we lose a major source of what makes live meaningful: close, caring relationships within a community, not just one’s family. If we refuse to help those living in poverty and suffering around the world, we also lose a great opportunity to find meaning bring greater meaning into our lives.
White Americans for generations have found meaning in their lives by aiming to give their offspring (and their children’s children) a better, more comfortable life. No wonder those in this social demographic feel a sense of despair and meaninglessness from knowing their children and grandchildren will be even worse off than their parents and grandparents.
Carol Graham has arrived at a somewhat similar conclusion in her latest book on happiness, Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream. From her research on poor white voters, she found that their increasing unhappiness arose in part from a deficit in optimism.
Now that well-paying jobs for the non-college-educated are scarce to non-existent, their main source of optimism and meaning has disappeared. The drive to suicide and drugs is not an income problem so much as a loss in opportunity for one’s family and future generations of the family.
Graham’s conclusion is that our nation’s future well-being depends upon reducing the tremendous inequality of wealth in the United States. Huge disparities in income or wealth tend to diminish the meaningfulness of one life within such societies. No wonder that White middle-class Americans with little education die early from despair magnified by obesity and addictions.
Paul Rosenblatt — April 19, 2017
Ron, This makes perfect sense to me. But then it also simulates me to think that we need something like sociological autopsies of a number of specific deaths. autopsies where data would be gathered on what family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, personal physicians, etc. say about the life, dying, and death of the person. Also, we could get a sense of the family, friendship, work, religious, etc. environment of the person who died. And if the person who died left personal documents behind, to look at those too.
Dan Mueller — April 21, 2017
Ron, I find your explanation for this tragic situation compelling and thought-provoking. You mention the recent revival of individualism. It seems that the psychological toll of unfulfilled aspirations may be especially high in our culture which prizes individual achievement. The damage to self-esteem or sense of self efficacy may be large for many. I wonder if there have been any recent studies of trends in mental disorders (e.g., depression) in this population.
With regard to the loss of meaning in life, the April issue of The Atlantic has an article ("Breaking Faith") on the recent decline in American church-going and its implications for our politics. In the article, W. Bradford Wilcox ( a University of Virginia sociologist) is quoted as saying that since the 1970s "rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college." He goes on to say that those within the white working class "who don't regularly attend church are more likely to suffer divorce, addiction, and financial distress." Religious organizations have traditionally had an important role in providing meaning to life, fostering social ties, and encouraging caring for others in American communities. The decline in ties to religious organizations among those struggling with unfulfilled aspirations could contribute to losses in meaning and social participation.
Ron Anderson — July 1, 2017
Thanks very much for your very insightful comments and suggestions for additional resources. Your thoughts are very helpful.
Nancy Kehmeier — July 1, 2017
Appreciate all the insightful comments. Another good article.