Sounding a wake-up call
It's hard not be be startled by the news released last week about an important new research paper written by Nobel economics laureate Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case, scholars and professors from Princeton University. Their paper documents rising mortality rates among white Americans of middle age, a reversal of long-term trends where life expectancy has been increasing among all age and ethnic groups. That is troubling enough; so are the lack of clear solutions about how to turn this trend around.
The implications of their research and work are profound. According to Deaton and Case, this change in mortality is unique to the United States; the midlife mortality reversal was confined to white non-Hispanics; the causes for increasing death rates was clustered around drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide and chronic liver diseases; with an over-representation by members of this age cohort who obtained the least amount of education — defined as a high school education or less.
What may be most surprising is that these conclusions make sense and really aren't surprising. Ever since the publication of Charles Murray's important and groundbreaking book, "Coming Apart: The state of White America, 1960-2010," documented the steady erosion of once solid, cohesive middle-class neighborhoods, charting declining marriage rates and ties to community organizations like churches and community service organizations, this has been a topic threatening to break out into the nation's social and political — and perhaps most significantly — economic discourse. That time has now arrived, and not just because at long last it is white America, as opposed to other minority groups, that is faced with a many-pronged crisis. This is a human tragedy, which left untreated will metastasize into a much larger epidemic, all signs seem to indicate.
Here in Vermont we need look no further than the rising concern about heroin abuse, and the criminal activity and family dissolution which it brings in its wake, This pattern is replicated in many other states and we are not unique in that regard, but one can only wonder how much abuse of heroin and other opioids are a sypmtom of a deeper and more existential malaise. That malaise, decades in the making, are fruits of income stagnation and a sense that this generation, and perhaps others to follow, will not share in the optimistic American dream that living standards are destined to always be on an upward trajectory, and that each generation will out-perform earlier ones in terms of wealth and economic security. Quite the reverse is going on — we have seen evidence of that for awhile, but the stubborn reluctance of the economy to fully recover from the financial crisis of 2008, and the polarization of wealth accumulation seeming to be restricted more and more to fewer and fewer people, has cast these trends into sharper relief.
Why though, mortality rates should be rising for whites only, and not for other ethnic groups, suggests that whites, educated or not, had a sense of destiny that over the long run, their economic prospects would always be improving. Black Amercicans, to take one example, having suffered decades if not centuries of economic struggle which no amount of hard work and stick-to-it gumption could overcome, may be having an easier time of it psychologically, because, basically, nothing is really that different. Technology, globalization and jobs that require higher skill sets than earlier generations had to bring to the table are finally choking off many of the traditional routes to a decent-enough middle class life for those who chose not to go on to college or acquire more skills beyond what they took from high school — in short, there is no birthright to income security. Just showing up isn't 90 percent of it all, filmmaker Woody Allen's other insights into the human condition notwithstanding.
Politicians and ideologies of left and right will no doubt find justifications for their already entrenched positions in all of this. Conservatives may well see the growth of the nanny state as finally hollowing out the sense of self-reliance and the central role of church and family which made the United States great and powerful in the first place. Liberals will point to our scattershot approach to healthcare and sieve-like social safety net as the main issues, noting that other nations, which offer far more generous social welfare programs are not seeing the same increasing trend of middle age mortality. Both sides have a point. But it seems here that the key is to get incomes rising again, not because economics determines all, but because that is an important building block to self-esteem, and for a sense of hope and purpose for the future.
How to do that? The economy has stubbornly refused to generate the kinds of job growth that would put pressure on employers, outside of a few sectors, that would force wages up. Ultimately the private sector creates the jobs, not the government. We would argue that this latest, and hugely disturbing research, argues for a mindset at the local and state levels that makes life a lot easier for entrepreneurially-minded people, many of still seem to feel that government bureaucrats are lurking at every turn, demanding too much in terms of time, taxes and regulations — when they should and want to be focused on growing their businesses.
At the same time, it argues for the government to play an important role in alleviating one of the worst crunches faced by younger and middle-aged Americans — child care. That the nation tolerates the relative lack of maternity and paternity leave is bad enough, but that we at best have an inconsistent approach to pre-kindergarten education is another. We worry a lot here about how much Vermont, for instance, spends on public education — when we have such a crying need to invest more in early education, the surest means to get kids off to successful starts in school. That in turn would go a long way towards allowing mom and dad to focus on work.
This should be the long awaited wake-up call. Maybe we'll hear more about this once the silly season of presidential politics finally ends. Or maybe not.
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