For those of you who may not read The New York Times, here’s a sobering piece of news: Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans. Basically, so many white Americans with less than a college education are dying prematurely from things like suicide and substance abuse that they are causing a statistical anomaly. This came to researchers’ attention when they realized that “unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.” So they started digging into the details of that data. ” [P]oorly educated American whites … are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case found.” Dr. Angus Deaton, by the way, is a 2015 Nobel Prize winner in Economics.
Furthermore, the impact of this sudden increase in death rates in a specific age group is so dramatic, “Dr. Deaton had but one parallel. ‘Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,’ he said.”
It took activist groups like ACT UP to force the nation’s attention to AIDS and the devastation it was wreaking among members of the gay community. That activism led to advances that have benefited us all in the form of anti-viral drugs, better treatments for all who have been exposed to HIV, and much improved infection control throughout the healthcare system. Who will now speak and agitate for middle-aged people? Because it’s not just white people suffering, folks — middle-aged people of color have terribly high mortality rates. The current spotlight is shining because of the dramatic narrowing of the gap between them and whites. All are suffering more than they should, although “the death rate for middle-aged blacks and Hispanics continued to decline during the same period, as did death rates for younger and older people of all races and ethnic groups.”
What drives middle-aged people to despair, drink and drugs? Hmm — let me think. Could it be decades of economic insecurity, downsizing, offshoring of jobs and the Great Recession’s impact on people’s already meager savings and hopes for financial stability? Could it be the prospect of aging without any safety net?
All I can say is that I share the point of view of Ronald D. Lee, director of the Center on Economics and Demography of Aging at the University of California, Berkeley, who “was among those taken aback by what Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case discovered.”
“Seldom have I felt as affected by a paper,” he said. “It seems so sad.”
It is sad. And it makes me mad.