In modern countries mortality rates for all age groups have generally been falling as average life expectancy increased. Princeton University scholars Anne Case and Angus Deaton have recently reported that these mortality trends have apparently reversed for poor middle-aged American whites during the past decade. I reported other data showing that mortality rates have also been going up for younger white Americans, too. Increased white mortality is associated with rising rates of opioid overdosing, suicides, and alchohol abuse. In contrast, mortality rates continue to fall for black and Hispanic Americans.
Today, Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin has an op-ed in the New York Times in which he asks, "Why Are White Death Rates Rising?" His analysis focuses on reference group theory. Basically, he argues that many whites with high school educations or less are losing heart because they do not feel as though they are doing as well as their parents did. Cherlin suggests:
And here is one solution to the death-rate conundrum: It's likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.
When whites without college degrees look back, they can often remember fathers who were sustained by the booming industrial economy of postwar America. Since then, however, the industrial job market has slowed significantly. The hourly wages of male high school graduates declined by 14 percent from 1973 to 2012, according to analysis of data from the Economic Policy Institute. Although high school educated white women haven't experienced the same major reversal of the job market, they may look at their husbands — or, if they are single, to the men they choose not to marry — and reason that life was better when they were growing up.
In my column, I speculated that government welfare policies are making the situation worse:
Perhaps dependence on the paltry alms doled out by the welfare state encourages rural recipients to stay out in the boondocks where they have few opportunities for improving their lives. Not being as cautious about speculation as Case, I'll guess that lots of poor rural whites have come to believe that the modern world is leaving them behind and are seeking solace in mind-numbing substances and suicide. Bribing people to stay poor can kill them.
The whole op-ed is worth a read.