Study Shows Increase in Deaths for Middle-Aged White Americans

Study Shows Increase in Deaths for Middle-Aged White Americans

A middle-aged white man poses for the camera. Studies have shown that the death rate of middle-aged white Americans has increased since 1999. (Provided/

In 2015, economist researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton discovered that the death rate for middle-aged white Americans had increased exponentially since 1999. Now, in 2017, the husband and wife team have published their study on these “deaths of despair” linked to suicide, drugs and alcohol.

In their study, published March 23, in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Case and Deaton said that the lack of well-paying and steady job options for white Americans without a college degree has built up over time to create feelings of pain, distress and social dysfunction. The mortality rate of white people aged 45 to 54 has increased by half a percent each year since 1999.

White people with college degrees have not seen the same reduction in life expectancy because they do not suffer the same lack of economic opportunities.

In an interview with NPR’s David Greene, Case and Deaton, who both work at Princeton University, spoke on what they believe are the driving factors in the rise of these deaths.

When asked about the about the original discovery of rising death rates for middle-aged white people, Deaton explained that for the past 100 years there has been a reverse in the number of deaths for all age groups. Life expectancy has been increasing in the past years, so to suddenly have a group (white Americans aged 45-54) move in reverse and lose life expectancy, Deaton and Case assumed something must be wrong.

Deaton further explained that he and Case went back and double checked the numbers and were shocked to find no one else had picked up on this unexpected trend.

They knew what the proximate causes were -suicide rates were increasing rapidly, mostly overdoses from prescription drugs and alcoholic liver disease is increasing as well. The more important question was why this is happening.

Both Case and Deaton went on the describe what they discovered was driving these early deaths.

Case explained that most of the deaths are deaths of despair that correlate with the “reduced labor force participation, reduced marriage rates, increases in reports of poor health and poor mental health.”

She explained that all the deaths are consistent with the collapse of the labor market for those without a college degree. In turn, this is causing the people in this group to be less likely to form a stable marriage, which effects the social and economic support people need to succeed.

In the past, the longer you worked in the labor force, the more you were paid, “in part because you understand your job better and you’re more efficient at your job, you’ve had on-the-job training, you belong to a union, and so your wages go up with age,” Case said.

However, this trend is happening less and less the later someone is born and the later they enter the labor force.

Deaton added that they are “thinking of this in terms of something that’s been going on for a long time, something that’s emerged as the iceberg has risen out of the water. We think of this as part of the decline of the white working class.”

Back in the ‘70s there were many “blue-collar aristocrats,” but those jobs have been crumbling away, leaving mainly men to find themselves looking for jobs in a very hostile labor market with lower wages, lower quality and semi-permanent jobs. Because of this, they find it harder to get married and never get to know their own kids, which has caused social dysfunction to rise over time.

These people have lost their sense of status and belonging, which are classic precursors to suicide.

“The rates of suicide are much higher among men [than women] and drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver death are higher among men, too,” Case said.

However, the mortality trends are the same among men and women, so they are either quickly killing themselves with a gun or slowly over time with drugs and alcohol.

They feel that due to the body count caused by the social dysfunction, they can pin the deaths on poor job prospects for those with a high school degree or less.

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