The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If white America is in ‘crisis,’ what have black Americans been living through?

Cassady Baker, 5, participates in a march in Flint, Mich., aimed at bringing attention to the city's water crisis. (Mac Snyder/Flint via AP)

For the past year and a half, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have been ringing the alarm about rising mortality among middle-aged white Americans.

The pair have attracted a bit of controversy for pointing out these facts. Recently, Pacific Standard’s Malcolm Harris suggested that their research, and the way it was presented, put too much emphasis on white mortality — when black mortality has always been worse. “American white privilege is still very much in effect, and no statistical tomfoolery can change that,” he wrote.

Sam Fulwood III, a fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, worried that Case and Deaton’s work would further amplify a growing narrative about white working class woes, to the exclusion of the African American experience. “I worry about how political people will manipulate Case and Deaton’s findings to argue for more aid for white people, but ignore the same, long-standing concerns of people of color,” he wrote last week.

Case and Deaton point out that the trend of increasing white American mortality — higher death rates in middle age —  is noteworthy because those death rates have been going down for nearly everyone else: for African Americans, Latino Americans, for people in the U.K. and Germany and France. When we’re used to life getting better, it’s unusual to see life getting worse.

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“It’s not as much news if people’s mortality rates are falling the way you would hope they are falling,” Case said in an interview Monday. “What seems like news is when mortality has stopped falling, and no one has noticed that it has stopped.” That's what happened in the case of white Americans, she said.

But the critics on the left do have a point, which is that the statistics about black mortality may have not gotten enough attention in the media. So it’s worth straightening that out right now: Black Americans have long been dying faster than white Americans. They've long been less happy than white Americans.

Now, though, the two groups are starting to look more and more alike. Particularly among those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, class has become equally — if not more important — than race as a predictor of people's health and emotional well-being.

Case and Deaton have a chart showing the declining mortality gap between black and white people without a college degree. Back in 1995, black Americans with a high school education or less were dying at more than twice the rate of similar white Americans. Since then, black mortality has been declining, while white mortality has been climbing. In recent years, the two groups have more or less met in the middle.

But then again, black Americans have always been less happy than white Americans. And it’s not just a matter of white Americans being paid more on average. As these charts from Stevenson and Wolfers show, even when you compare people making similar amounts of money, white Americans have been happier than black Americans since at least the 1970s.

It now seems that since 2010, lower income white and black Americans have become more or less indistinguishable in terms of how happy they are. Among families earning less than $16,000 a year, Americans of both races seem equally unhappy. But this is only a recent development, and it doesn’t erase the fact that for decades, lower income African Americans were significantly less happy than their white counterparts.

Case and Deaton’s research about rising death rates among middle-aged whites has spawned a mass of thinkpieces and feature stories about what was plaguing white America. Their initial research came at just the right moment in 2015, when Donald Trump’s surging presidential campaign put the spotlight on white working-class anxieties. Their message seemed offer one explanation for his appeal: Something truly had gone wrong with white Americans.

It's not just about the deaths either. In their latest paper, Case and Deaton highlight a host of "social dysfunctions" that are on the rise in white communities, including "the decline of marriage, social isolation, and detachment from the labor force." They believe that all of these problems may share an underlying cause: The economic forces which made life much harder for those without a college degree in recent decades.

It's an insight that applies to all Americans. The argument would have been well heeded during Johnson's War on Poverty, when the breakup of black families was blamed on broken values instead of a broken economic system for black Americans. But now that white and black Americans are starting to look more and more similar, both in terms of their chances of dying early and their happiness levels, the mainstream also seems to be converging on the idea that social problems can be triggered by a lack of economic opportunity.

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This may be the enduring impact of Case and Deaton's work. As economist and columnist Noah Smith writes, “I'd think results like Case & Deaton's would help convince white Americans that the problems of black America aren't due to any unique pathology of black culture, and that white and black Americans are in the same boat together.”