When President Obama was chatting a few weeks ago about “unhappy America,” Republicans successfully illustrated his words with the grimaces of Grumpy Cat. Obama had good reason to speak up. Given the unprecedented rise in American employment figures, last seen so high in the 1990s, and the record-breaking stats for the numbers of people covered by medical insurance, the gloomy predictions of his political foes are on an ever-divergent course from reality.
Despite this, a gloomy cloud has settled over a certain part of American society, and the reasons are not entirely clear.
New articles which have appeared from such economists as Angus Deaton (a recent Nobel Prize winner) and Anne Case show that the mortality rate among middle-aged white Americans is on a steady rise – prompting justified intense debate. These worsening death-rates come at a time when analogous data from other countries, including ours (i.e. Brazil's) reveal an improving trend – death-rates elsewhere are falling.
More worrying still are the identifiable causes of this increased mortality. Specifically, white Americans – in increasing numbers, and either directly or indirectly – are killing themselves. This means not only the direct suicide stats, but also death rates arising from narcotic abuse, and chronic liver diseases linked to excessive alcohol consumption. We've seen similar situations in another place and at another time – the sharp decline in life expectancy in Russia after the fall of communism. To see exactly the same situation in America, albeit in a reduced form, comes as a shock to us.
Nevertheless, the research published by Deaton and Case meets a well-known situation. Over recent years, a whole series of studies have shown that life expectancy among lower-educated white Americans is falling across the entire nation. The rise in suicides and substance-related deaths is a situation which is far from new. Pop culture might be more focused on meth than prescription painkillers or old-fashioned booze – but whichever of these it is, it all comes down to substance addiction.
What is behind this outbreak of self-destructive behavior?
If we believe the doomsday right-wingers, then the problem, of course, is all caused by liberals. Over-generous welfare programs, they claim, create a culture of dependency and despair, while social humanists are chipping away at traditional values. However – and this comes as a surprise – the facts don't support this way of thinking. The fact of the increase in mortality rate is a uniquely American phenomenon – since the US is a far less socialized country where important roles are played by religion and traditional values. This basket of factors would be hard to find in any analogous developed country. Sweden, for example, hands out far more welfare to its less-affluent residents than we do. A majority of children in Sweden are now born out of wedlock, while the mortality rates of middle-aged Swedes are more than half of those of white Americans.
The same overall pattern can be seen in all regions within the USA. Life expectancy is high and continues to increase in the northeast and in California – which has the highest welfare payouts and weak adherence to traditional American values. Meanwhile in the Bible Belt the mortality rates are drooping, with no hint of improvement.
Could the drop be attributable to financial changes? Could rising mortality rates be the result of growing inequality, with middle class lifestyles being hit? It's not as simple as that. We're discussing the results of behavior patterns, so culture inevitably plays a huge role in this. Hispanics are traditionally poorer than whites – yet their community shows a far lower mortality rate. In this context it deserves mention that by international comparisons the subjectively rated well-being of the Hispanic community is consistently higher than their incomes might suggest.
So what is going on, then? Deaton suggested in a recent interview that white middle-aged Americans have “lost their life set-up.” Meaning that the blow of financial failure has crushed them, precisely because they expected things would be better. Or, if we put this slightly differently, we're looking at people brought up to expect the American Dream, who are utterly unable to cope with the fact that it's turned into the American Failure.
This kind of hypothesis holds water, in my opinion – but it still doesn't help in understanding why despair is spreading throughout the central areas of the United States. Even so, it's a fact that threatens frightening consequences for society overall.
I know for certain that I'm not the only one who sees links between the despair reflected in the mortality-rate statistics, and the shiftiness of right-wing politicians. Some people who feel left out of the American story turn to self-destruction, while others attack the elite, and accuse them of treason. No, deporting immigrants, or wearing slogan-blazoned baseball caps isn't going to fix things – but cutting capital gains tax isn't going to fix them either. This makes it more understandable why some voters have rallied to the support of politicians who at least pretend they feel their pain.
And now, I guess you're waiting for my answer to all this? It may be that universal healthcare, higher minimum wages, student grants, and similar measures will go towards helping Americans who find themselves in a tight spot – but I frankly doubt that these are enough to lift them from existential despair.