The news this week that the death rate of middle-aged American whites — more particularly, working-class middle-aged American whites — is rising, while that of all other Americans continues to fall, is appalling. But it should come as no surprise.
A study released Monday by Princeton economists Angus Deaton (the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics) and Anne Case documented that the number of deaths by suicide, alcohol use and drug use among working-class whites ages 45 to 54 has risen precipitously since 1999 — so precipitously that the overall death rate for this group increased by 22 percent. Death rate increases in the modern world are so rare that economists and public health scholars have been groping for equivalent instances. “Only HIV/AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,” Deaton told the New York Times. A closer parallel might be the increased death rates of Russians, particularly by alcohol, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economy — not only because the instrument of death was the same for both the Russians and our white working class, but also because the real cause in each instance was the end of a world that had sustained them.
There was a time when the white working class was the subject of happier tales. Like the yeoman farmer in the 19th century, the white worker of the mid-20th century was the protagonist of the American saga. Members of the white working class were the linchpin of the New Deal coalition, the guys who fought and won World War II (well, if you ignored those Americans shunted to the all-black units), the Riveting Rosies who built those guys’ armaments, the postwar factory workers who made the goods we sold to the world at the height of U.S. economic power and, in consequence of their high levels of unionization, the world’s most affluent and economically secure working class from the 1950s through the 1970s.
In recent decades, however, the stories of the white working class have grown relentlessly grimmer. The offshoring of U.S. manufacturing and the increasing substitution of machines for humans in the production process took a huge toll. As Andrew J. Cherlin points out in “Labor’s Love Lost,” his study of the disintegration of the working-class white family, the share of blue-collar jobs in the U.S. economy declined from 28 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2010. Work in the service or retail sectors was no bargain, either: As research by Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute demonstrates, the real median hourly wage for white men with no more than a high school diploma declined from $19.76 in 1979 to $17.50 in 2014.
The white working class’s loss of jobs and incomes was spurred by its loss of power: The nearly complete deunionization of the private sector left those workers with no way to bargain for better pensions or pay. The doctrine of maximizing shareholder value, which corporations began to adopt in the ’80s, most commonly meant minimizing worker pay and benefits, hiring from temp agencies and eliminating programs to increase employee skills.
With the demise of stable, remunerative employment came the decline of stable, two-parent families. Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of white mothers who were single rose from 18 to 30 percent for those with no college degree, but only from 6 to 9 percent for college graduates.
The decline of the white working class has been demographic as well. In 1940, as Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz have documented, 82 percent of Americans 25 and older were whites with no more than a high school education; by 2007, that figure had dwindled to 29 percent. Beginning in the 1960s, the Democrats put greater emphasis on mitigating the very real injuries of race and gender than they did on the very real injuries of class, which would have upset corporate America far more. This helped fuel a racial and nativist backlash that has driven much of the white working class (particularly in the South) into Republican ranks.
The rising rate of death is just one of two stories about a major share of the white working class that are making news these days. The other is the unexpected success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump draws his support chiefly from working-class Republicans, who are attracted to his opposition to trade deals, his support for Social Security and Medicare, and his vilification of immigrants — a program similar to that of other nations’ right-wing racist-populist parties with working-class support, such as France’s National Front.
The rising death rates and the support for Trump are two very different stories about the white working class, but — without in any way equating them — they share some common roots: a sense of abandonment, betrayal and misdirected rage.