A pair of Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case (who also happen to be husband and wife), have released a new report on the mortality rates of middle-aged (45-54 years old) white Americans. And the findings aren’t pretty.

As the New York Times reports, in the period 1999-2014, the mortality rate for white middle-aged Americans rose to 415 per 100,000. This inflated mortality rate is still lower than that for middle-aged black Americans (581 per 100,000 people) but is substantially higher than that for middle-aged Hispanic Americans (262 per 100,000 people). Further, while the rate for middle-aged whites has shot up since 1999, the rates of mortality for: middle-aged blacks; middle-aged Hispanics; younger people of all races and ethnicities; and older people of all races and ethnicities have all declined. In the words of Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania:

“This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”

But what is causing this particular group of Americans to buck the trend? Why are white middle-aged Americans dying in much greater numbers than they were 15 years ago? The researchers found that it is not due to the normal suspects:

“Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”

In fact these factors were confined to people with a high school education or less. In that group, death rates rose by 22 percent while they actually fell for those with a college education.

Although the report does not reach firm conclusions about the reasons for this increase in mortality, it does suggest some answers. For instance, during the same period examined the inflation-adjusted income for households headed by a high school graduate fell by 19 percent. Further:

“Dr. Case, investigating indicators of poor health, discovered that middle-aged people, unlike the young and unlike the elderly, were reporting more pain in recent years than in the past. A third in this group reported they had chronic joint pain over the years 2011 to 2013, and one in seven said they had sciatica. Those with the least education reported the most pain and the worst general health.”

And:

“Dr. Case found that the number of whites with mental illnesses and the number reporting they had difficulty socializing increased in tandem. Along with that, increasing numbers of middle-aged whites said they were unable to work. She also saw matching increases in the numbers reporting pain and the numbers reporting difficulty socializing, difficulty shopping, difficulty walking for two blocks.”

So what can be done about substance abuse and suicides in this cohort of the USA? This report surely indicates a loss of hope and confidence in the future for middle-class white Americans. It should worry those in the land of the free…

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...