Dwindling jobs for white, poorly educated, middle-age Americans is not only destroying their livelihoods and marriages, but also their lives, two Princeton University economists argue in a paper released Thursday.
The mortality rate for whites with no more than a high school degree was about 30 percent higher than for blacks in 2015, according to the report, to be presented at the Brookings Institution on Friday. That’s a huge increase from 1999, when the mortality rate for this group of whites was about 30 percent lower than for blacks.
“This is a story of the collapse of the white working class,” said Angus Deaton, who co-wrote the paper with Anne Case. “The labor market has very much turned against them,” he told The New York Times.
Case and Deaton first noted the increase in mortality among middle-aged whites with high school educations in 2015. Their new report found that the trend has not abated over the past two years, and there’s been no reduction in what they call “deaths of despair” ― including those caused by suicide, drugs and alcohol.
The authors wrote that increases in deaths of despair are accompanied by a measurable deterioration in the economic and social well-being of whites lacking college education.
“It’s not just their careers that have gone down the tubes, but their marriage prospects, their ability to raise children,” Deaton told the Times. “That’s the kind of thing that can lead people to despair.”
The new study found that the highest mortality rates from drugs, alcohol and suicide among whites ages 45 to 54 are no longer limited geographically. In 2000, these deaths were centered in the Southwest. By the mid-2000s, they had spread to Appalachia, Florida, and the West Coast. Today, they are nationwide.
The trend affects whites of both sexes. Education level is significant because people with a college degree report better health and greater happiness than those who never attended. And while the death rate for whites without a college degree is rising, the rate for whites who are college graduates has dropped, Case and Deaton found.
Less-educated white Americans who struggle in the job market in early adulthood are likely to experience a “cumulative disadvantage” over time, according to the study.
“Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline,” they concluded.
The research also speaks to the story of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency. Trump won widespread support among whites with only a high school diploma, suggesting that this demographic saw him as a savior for their struggles.
“The policies that you see seem almost perfectly designed to hurt the very people who voted for him,” Deaton told the Times.
Reversing mortality trends that in many cases began in the 1970s could take years, the study said ― regardless of Trump’s policies. But some immediate steps could help. Deaton told the Times that routine prescriptions for opioids should be curbed, for example. More than 30,000 Americans died of opioid overuse in 2015.