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Is the Economy Killing Middle-Aged White People?

Researchers on Monday released the results of a statistical survey showing a striking increase in the death rates of white, middle-aged Americans who have less than a college education. The researchers didn’t draw any hard conclusions as to the reasons for the spike (“This paper really is a question, not an answer,” one observer told the Washington Post), but they offered a couple of speculations. Economic forces are likely at least partly to blame, they said.

Between 1999 and 2013, white men and women ages 45-54 saw their mortality rate increase by a half-percent per year, reversing decades of improvements up until that time. The main causes were suicide and the use of alcohol and drugs (both legal and illegal), according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper was authored by Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in Economics, and his economics-professor wife, Anne Case. Both are professors at Princeton University.

The increase equates to about 500,000 additional deaths in all.

The rise is all the more striking given that in nearly all advanced countries, death rates for most groups have been falling , as people have quit smoking and as medical care has improved.

Substance abuse plays role

Blacks, Hispanics, younger whites, and more educated whites in the United States all continued to see their death rates fall, according to the paper, though mortality is still higher among blacks than among whites.

Researchers pointed in particular to the rise of heroin use in recent years, nearly all of which happened among white people.

A disproportionate number of people in the demographic that suffered the spike reported feeling more pain, both physical and psychological. That usually comes with a rise in alcohol and drug use.

What about the economy?

How attributable is the problem to economic forces? It’s impossible to know for sure without more study, but the paper’s authors themselves speculated that the economic crisis of 2008 might have been a major factor.

And indeed, it might well go back further than that. Earlier studies have noted alarming increases in the suicide rates among middle-aged Americans, which researchers have attributed at least partly to economic troubles. As for working-class whites, one need only look at the comments section under any political news story (and many non-political ones) to see that many of them, whether legitimately or not, are feeling, as a group, economically displaced and socially marginalized. Disruptions caused by the outsourcing of jobs overseas, falling representation by labor unions, stagnant wages, and falling demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor might be taking their toll on their physical and psychological well being.

Such a conclusion naturally raises the question: aren’t middle-aged, working-class people in other ethnic and racial groups subject to the same economic forces? They are. But unlike them, working-class whites have decades of relative success and security behind them, as the paper’s authors note. For the first time, perhaps, that group has seen a reversal of its fortunes.

The unemployment rate in 2014 for white Americans who didn’t graduate from high school was 7.8%. For those with a bachelor’s degree, it was 3.3%. While that first number is considerably better than it was for blacks (an unemployment rate of 17.2% for those with no high-school diploma), the gap between those groups is closing.