The authors of a groundbreaking study Thursday that revealed skyrocketing “deaths of despair” among middle-aged working class white Americans said the phenomenon is due to a lack of good jobs and family instability.
The study found that the mortality rate among whites ages 50 to 54 has increased by 30 percent since 1999. Princeton economist Anne Casse and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton found that this increase in deaths was confined to working-class whites as mortality rates decreased for whites with bachelor’s degrees, blacks, and Hispanics. This increase in “deaths of despair” were largely caused by alcohol, drugs, and suicide.
The authors wrote, “some of the most convincing discussions of what has happened to working class whites emphasize a long term process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation, rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education.”
The study said that as technological changes and globalization increased, people with just high school degrees were unable to keep up and their wages declined. The authors cited a study that found that only 60 percent of the people born in 1960 were better off in 1990 than their parents were at age 30.
They said that this process which began for those who entered the workforce in the early 1970s, was also “accompanied by other changes in society that made life more difficult for less-educated people, not only in their employment opportunities, but in their marriages, and in the lives of and prospects for their children.”
“Traditional structures of social and economic support slowly weakened; no longer was it possible for a man to follow his father and grandfather into a manufacturing job, or to join the union. Marriage was no longer the only way to form intimate partnerships, or to rear children,” Casse and Deaton wrote.
The two economists described how as wages decreased, men became less marriageable and “there was a marked rise in cohabitation, then much less frowned upon than had been the case a generation before.”
“Unmarried cohabiting partnerships are less stable than marriages. Moreover, among those who do marry, those without a college degree are also much more likely to divorce than are those with a degree,” Casse and Deaton wrote. “Childbearing is common in cohabiting unions, and again less disapproved of than once was the case. But, as a result, more men lose regular contact with their children, which is bad for them, and bad for the children, many of whom live with several men in childhood.”
A 2014 study found that it is now more unusual for women without a college degree to have a child out of wedlock than not.
The study’s authors wrote that despite white women having fewer children out of wedlock than Hispanic or blacks, they have more cohabiting partners throughout their life. “The constant re-partnering in the US is often driven by the need for an additional income, something that is less true in Europe with its more extensive safety net,” the study said.
Casse and Deaton described how people left traditional churches and joined newer ones that prioritized individualism.
“These changes left people with less structure when they came to choose their careers, their religion, and the nature of their family lives. When such choices succeed, they are liberating; when they fail, the individual can only hold him or herself responsible,” the study said. “Cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected is consistent with people compensating through other risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol, overeating, or drug use that predispose towards the outcomes we have been discussing.”
A recent study found that half of men who are out of the labor force are taking pain medication. Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than car crashes.