Opioid abuse and alcohol addiction are reaching epidemic levels in America. But working-class whites aren't comfortably numb. They're killing themselves with bottles, needles, and bullets leading to a statistical uptick in midlife mortality rates.
On the sterile spreadsheet of two Princeton economists, fatalities from alcohol, drugs and suicide get dumped under the tab labeled "deaths of despair." And much of the blame belongs to social liberalism.
In their new Brookings paper, "Mortality and morbidity in the 21st Century," Sir Angus Deaton and Anne Case explore the factors feeding the tragic phenomenon. They report that mortality rates of whites without a college degree, "which were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015."
Part of the problem's obviously economic. Beginning in the early 1970s, the so-called blue-collar aristocracy started falling from affluence at the same time that wages dropped and factories left. Without a college degree, sons soon found it almost impossible to find the same jobs their fathers held. But Case and Deaton report that there's more to the story than economic malaise.
As intellectual eschewed society's traditional community structures, the less educated followed suit and naively set themselves adrift. "Marriage was no longer the only way to form intimate partnerships, or to rear children," the authors note. "People moved away from the security of legacy religions or the churches of their parents and grandparents." Or put another in the parlance of heartland rock, Jack and Dianne shacked-up and started skipping church.
Sometimes things work out. "When such choices succeed, they are liberating," the economists explain, "but when they fail, the individual can only hold him or herself responsible." And though free from the responsibilities of traditional civil society during the easy times, they quickly find themselves unmoored in their time of need. The consequences of divorce, substance abuse, and suicide set in long after the thrill of living is gone.
Well-meaning liberal intellectuals are largely screened from these consequences. Comfortable on the recession-proof coasts, they sent the low educated on a quixotic quest for the concept of existence. Juggling their college reunions with their kids' soccer practices, the affluent have lived normal lives while the poor search for the mystery of human life.
But thanks to geography, that luxurious naivety could soon be a thing of the past. Deaths of despair aren't just for Appalachia anymore. They occur outside of small rustbelt towns now. Out of work and without a god or family, working class whites are dropping dead everywhere.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.