Welcome to the Age of 'Existential Despair'
You may have heard that life expectancy is dropping for middle-aged white men in the U.S. who have a high school education or less. The three primary causes, according to the researchers, are suicide, alcoholism, and addition to opiates. But Paul Klugman explains in a November 9, 2015, opinion column in the New York Times entitled “Despair, American Style” that the real reason for the life-expectancy decline in this demographic is the death of the American Dream.
Working-class white males put their faith in the belief that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they and their families would prosper. Economist Angus Deaton, who along with his wife Anne Case, first reported on the increased death rates for this specific group, claims that middle-aged white men in America have “lost the narrative of their lives.” Conservatives blame liberal social policies that make people dependent on the state, combined with “secular humanism” that undermines “traditional values” (i.e., Christian fundamentalism).
As Klugman points out, the evidence indicates that the cause of the growing malaise is the exact opposite: The life-expectancy decline is evident only in midwestern and southern states, not in northeastern states or California, where life expectancy for working-class white males is on the rise. It’s only in the so-called Bible Belt that this group is giving up on life. Klugman states that it’s no coincidence that social programs are highest and “traditional values” lowest in California and the northeast. He also points out that Hispanic Americans are generally poorer than Americans of European descent, yet their life-expectancy rates – and overall sense of well-being – are higher.
Could it be that working-class white men are the victims of their own high expectations? Klugman posits that these people “were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.” Some respond by adopting self-destructive behaviors, others “turn on the elites they feel have betrayed them,” which explains the growing popularity of non-politicians who demonize illegal immigrants and wave the banner of hate in defense of traditional values that are in fact not threatened at all.
(In a November 10, 2015, column, the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak refutes those who claim there’s a “war on Christmas” because Starbucks’ bright-red holiday cups lack Christian iconography. She states that the real war on Christmas is being waged by businesses that have commercialized the “peace, joy, generosity, thankfulness and goodwill among people” right out of the holiday.)
Universal health care, higher minimum wages, and improved education might help, Klugman suggests, but the despair among working-class white men runs so deep it may take a generation to reverse the life-expectancy decline among this group. Let’s hope it’s a generation that sees the realization of public-works programs to rebuild our country’s infrastructure, tax reforms resulting in rich people and corporations paying their fair share, and an end to our dependence on fossil fuels. While we’re at it, how about ensuring a hot meal for everyone who’s hungry and a warm, dry place to sleep for everyone who’s homeless?
Now, is that asking too much?