I’m sure you’ve at least heard about this recent work by Angus Deaton and Anne Case that shows that middle class white people are dying younger, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century (pdf). And the direct causes of this trend are: suicide, substance abuse, and liver disease (just indirect substance abuse). But is it asking so much to cut through the nonsense? I mean, we don’t say that the cause of suicide is that people are shooting themselves or jumping off bridges. Why are people killing themselves directly or indirectly? That’s a question worth discussing.
I think that Paul Krugman is on the right track in his Monday column, Despair, American Style. What is it that our society offers to it citizens in the way of meaning? After World War II, men could get good jobs that allowed them to have fulfilling family lives. Today, doing the same thing is like hitting the jackpot. For a while, I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station, and I heard constant talk among the workers who passed through about the fantasy of getting a union job. These were hard working people who very much “played by the rules.” But those in power had given up on the “rules” decades before.
The distressed middle class makes me think of two Barbara Ehrenreich books: Nickel and Dimed, about the ridiculous state of the working poor, and Bait and Switch, about the way that corporate America abandons the middle class. A few years back, there was a study out of Princeton University that showed that making $75,000 per year made people happy. But they didn’t get steadily happier the more money they got. That amount of money was a cut off. “Researchers found that lower income did not cause sadness itself but made people feel more ground down by the problems they already had… At $75,000, that effect disappears.”
I think it is all about stress and uncertainty. When you don’t make enough, you don’t know if everything is just going to fall apart because you lose your job. Of course, I think a lot of people making around $75,000 are deluding themselves; things can and do fall apart quickly for them too; but they don’t realize it. So there is an obvious solution: take away the uncertainty. There is no reason why anyone needs to worry that they are one bad boss or recession away from losing their homes and having trouble caring for their children.
There is another aspect of the study that is just as important. This effect does not appear to be happening to Latinos and African Americans. Why? I think we need to look at Richard Wilkinson work on inequality between and within countries. I think the same thing happens inside groups within a country. African Americans and Latinos are very used to their lot in life. They have largely been ghettoized, so they don’t feel the social stigma and stress of not living up to the larger society’s standards.
This isn’t to say that it is good to be an African American or a Latino in this country, because it isn’t. But these groups have developed coping mechanisms that the formerly white middle class has not. (Or in the case of African Americans, their life expectancies have already fallen; they are 3.7 years less than they are for whites.) But the policies that will help whites live longer will help everyone live longer.
I’m not going to go into those policies, however. People who read this blog know well enough what policies I think we need. But in addition to all of these policies, we really need a revolution in the way that we think about the world. Here in the United States, we fetishize work and money. It just isn’t acceptable for someone to choose to be poor so that they can live a different kind of life. And that’s so primarily because the society largely thinks that such people are lying. “Obviously everyone wants to be rich!” And that is pretty much the only purpose that society offers to people. Our society pushes this idea ever harder even while it makes being financially successful ever more difficult. It’s no surprise that people would start popping pills, guzzling booze, and ultimately just killing themselves.