Mortality rates for people in the middle of their life in rich countries all over the world are falling – except for under-educated whites in the United States. In sharp contrast, mortality rates for whites with a college degree continue to decline. The decline and rise in mortality rates for working-class whites began in the 1970s as the nature of the American economy began to change, and accelerated during the 2008 economic crisis.
Death rates among under-educated whites (those with a high school education or less) have now surpassed blacks overall in America. In fact, mortality rates are 30 percent higher for whites between the ages of 50-54 than for blacks overall of the same age, the Princeton economists – Anne Case and Angus Deaton – said in a study released by the Brookings Institution.
While midlife mortality rates continue to fall among all education classes in most of the rich world, middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less have experienced increasing midlife mortality since the late 1990s. “This is due to both rises in the number of ‘deaths of despair’—death by drugs, alcohol and suicide—and to a slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age,” Brookings said. The combined effect of all of this is that mortality rates for whites in this demographic now surpass the death rates of blacks. According to the study, it grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks two years ago.
Rich countries, many of them with universal health coverage, are making progress against deadly diseases such as heart disease and cancer. That clearly isn’t true for poor, under-educated whites in America.
The “deaths of despair” are rising for both white women and men without a high school degree, are increasing among this cohort in all parts of America and every level of urbanization. The reason for the increase in death rates is sobering. Basically, the authors said, the economic and social rug has been pulled out from beneath them. The authors suggest that the increases in deaths of despair are accompanied by a measurable deterioration in economic and social well-being, which has become more pronounced for each successive birth cohort. Marriage rates and labor-force participation rates fall between successive birth cohorts, while reports of physical pain, and poor health and mental health rise. It is only among working class whites with less education that death rates are getting worse.
The disparities in death rates among whites and blacks in the same economic demographic can’t be explained by income alone, they said. Blacks and Hispanics face similar economic hardships as working class whites – but haven’t suffered as much.
“This doesn’t seem to be about current income, it seems to be about accumulating despair,” Case said in a press call. Working class whites, by and large, seemed to have given up the belief that their children would be better off than them in the future, they said.
The rise in mortality rates for working class whites appears to be rooted equally in poor job opportunities and social dysfunction – which explains the anger that under-educated white voters carried with them into the 2016 presidential election. And this anger is what propelled Trump into the White House.