By the Deathbed

An Economic Plague of Death, Despair, Diabetes, and Obesity

Suffering shows up in many ways until it becomes unmistakable. Today at the Brookings Institution, Anne Case and Angus Deaton present their newest findings on a “sea of despair” among white working class Americans. People see this crisis in many different ways. All at once, it is an economic, medical, and human tragedy.

An Economic Crisis

Drug, Alcohol, and Suicide Deaths, Men and Women 50-54In a new analysis published by Brookings, Case and Deaton follow up on their much acclaimed 2015 publication about rising death rates for white Americans in midlife. Case describes a long-term decline in job prospects behind this pattern of despair:

You used to be able to get a really good job with a high school diploma. A job with on-the-job training, a job with benefits. You could expect to move up.

Writing in the Atlantic, Alana Semuels says that, except for Italy, America has the lowest labor force participation rate among all other OECD countries. Declining participation in the labor force is an obvious problem for economic productivity.

A Medical Crisis

That economic crisis may have its roots in a medical crisis. Case and Deaton describe a rising toll of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in this population. Semuels describes a growing belief:

American men are dropping out of the workforce because they are suffering from serious health conditions that make it difficult for them to work. As their health deteriorates, they’re getting on pain medications, which then make it even more difficult to re-enter the workforce.

A Human Tragedy

This pattern of economic and medical issues becomes a human tragedy that Case and Deaton describe in further detail. Pain becomes a chronic feature of daily life. Opioid addiction is a well-documented issue that compounds the problem. All these issues can work together to become an overwhelming problem, Deaton says:

Your family life has fallen apart, you don’t know your kids anymore, all the things you expected when you started out your life just haven’t happened at all.

Case, Deaton, and many others have documented a compelling pattern of facts and trends. The narrative that we use to understand these patterns is, of course, highly subjective. Perhaps it is the economic crisis that moves some people. The medical and health problems may move others. And still others will find the human tragedy most urgent.

Regardless, we cannot afford to ignore the entirety of this picture. As long as we do, these problems will compound each other and spill over into our political landscape.

Click here to read more in the Washington Post, here to read more in the Atlantic, and here to read the new paper by Case and Deaton.

By the Deathbed, painting by Edvard Munch / WikiArt

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March 24, 2017