Study: More working-class white Americans are dying 'deaths of despair' | Ladders

A core part of the U.S. population is dying faster than any other group.
Future of Work

Study: More working-class white Americans are dying ‘deaths of despair’

More middle-aged white Americans, particularly those with only a high school diploma or less, are dying in the prime of their lives.

In a follow up to their 2015 paper on rising mortality among midlife white Americans, Princeton Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton released a new study that shows the trend has only gotten worse for working-class white workers.

The reason for this increase? More working-class white Americans are dying from “deaths of despair,” which the researchers defined as deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

Working-class white Americans are the biggest group in the country, making up around 42% of the American population.

With fewer opportunities in the labor market, working-class whites are feeling social and economic distress. Researchers linked this “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected” to why this demographic would engage in risky behavior like drug and alcohol abuse.

Researchers concluded that working-class whites are facing a “cumulative disadvantage over life” that’s “rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities,” especially for those who graduate without a high school degree.

This study suggests that rises in poor health and declining mental health for working-class whites are the reason for the decline in this group’s wellbeing.

The decline of high-school-educated white Americans has already been predicted and analyzed in a number of much-heralded books with provocative titles, including “Hillbilly Elegy” and “White Trash: The 400-year-old untold story of class in America.”

Why ‘deaths of despair’ are becoming dominant for working-class whites

There has been a rapid rise and expansion in the death rate for working-class whites, the authors said.

In 2000, these deaths were happening mainly in the southwest. Now, as deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, and alcoholic-related liver failures rise for this demographic, they’re happening nationwide.

How the researchers know that “despair” is behind the trend: the deaths of working-class whites set the population apart from the rest of America.

Other traditionally fatal sicknesses are decreasing.The decline in mortality from heart disease and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age, has actually slowed down since the late 1990s.

Older white Americans are also not suffering the same fate. Working-class whites born in 1935 had better mortality rates than those born in 1975 because their “deaths of despair” rate was much lower.

While mortality rates among blacks and Latinos is decreasing, for working-class whites it’s only increasing. White Americans aged 50-54 with only a high-school degree are dying at a 30% higher rate than blacks in that same age group.

The peak of working wages for whites in the 1970s is no more. Working-class white men make less money now than they did even in 1996, according to Sentier Research, due to inflation. Meanwhile, their college-educated peers make 133% of the salary that they did then.