Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said in a New York Times editorial on Monday that the economic collapse of the American middle class may be to blame for the spike in suicides and deaths by addiction and alcoholism among white Americans.
Krugman was referring to data from a recent paper by economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case which found that premature deaths have surged among one U.S. demographic, whites ages 45 to 54 with a high school diploma or less. A significant portion of these deaths were attributable to alcohol and drug dependency or suicide.
In his Monday editorial, Krugman said, “there is a darkness spreading over part of our society. And we don’t really understand why.”
The trend began in 1999 and has been on the rise ever since.
Even more striking are the proximate causes of rising mortality. Basically, white Americans are, in increasing numbers, killing themselves, directly or indirectly. Suicide is way up, and so are deaths from drug poisoning and the chronic liver disease that excessive drinking can cause. We’ve seen this kind of thing in other times and places – for example, in the plunging life expectancy that afflicted Russia after the fall of Communism. But it’s a shock to see it, even in an attenuated form, in America.
Right-wing pontificators have blamed the rise of liberal institutions creating a “culture of dependency,” but Krugman said “(Surprise!) this view is very much at odds with the evidence.”
The trend in deaths is not echoed in countries like Sweden, which has a better social safety net and programs of aid for the poor. Similarly, in the U.S., the deaths of middle-aged whites have not climbed as strongly in California and the northeast, where social welfare programs are more common than in the red states.
“(L)ow and stagnant or declining life expectancy is concentrated in the Bible Belt,” wrote Krugman, and particularly among whites. Latinos in the same regions make significantly less money than whites on the whole, but have a higher life expectancy.
Krugman suggests that this could be because the people who are suffering from this combination of poverty and despair were brought up with an expectation that their lives would be better. The American Dream has failed them and they are failing to cope well with the disappointment.
However, he said, with an issue like this, one should be wary of answers that are too simple.
“That sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but the truth is that we don’t really know why despair appears to be spreading across Middle America,” he said. “But it clearly is, with troubling consequences for our society as a whole.”
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders was not so hesitant to link the climbing numbers of deaths with the crumbling of the U.S. middle class.
“When I talk about the collapse of the middle-class, that’s what I’m talking about. What it tells you is that there are millions of people in this country, working-class people whose standard of living is going down, they are experiencing very high levels of unemployment. They are in despair. They don’t see anything in front of them in terms of the future that’s going to work for them,” Sanders said last week.