‘The Collapse of the White Working Class’

A new study explains why economic distress has led to mortality-rate spike for white, middle-age Americans without a college degree.

Silhouetted construction workers

One of the defining issues of the 2016 election was the loss of jobs and economic opportunity among white, working-class Americans. As the middle class continues to shrink, so too has the labor market for those with only a high-school diploma. There’s now reason to believe that this lack of education is taking a physical toll as well: A new study released Thursday by the Brookings Institution finds that mortality rates are rising for those without a college degree.

Nearly 20 years ago, the mortality rate for high-school-educated white Americans ages 50 to 54 was 30 percent lower than the rate for all black Americans in the same age group. As of 2015, the rate was 30 percent higher. “This is a story of the collapse of the white working class,” Angus Deaton, the study’s co-author, told The New York Times. “The labor market has very much turned against them.” (Conversely, mortality rates are falling among middle-age white Americans with college degrees.)

It’s not just that lack of education has led to declining incomes, although that is certainly the case. The authors find that white men of all ages without a four-year college degree are less likely to participate in the labor force. But there seems to be a broader effect among white Americans in middle age: Not having a college degree often results in fewer economic opportunities, which in turn may trigger things like divorce, poor health, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, or raising children in unstable conditions.

The study’s authors say that working-class whites have faced “a long-term process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation.” This process, they argue, started with “those leaving high school and entering the labor force after the early 1970s—the peak of working-class wages, and the beginning of the end of the ‘blue-collar aristocracy.’”

As economic opportunities have dwindled for those without higher education, marriage rates have declined and divorce rates have risen, causing more men to lose regular contact with their children. These social trends promote distress—and in many cases, the effects are fatal. Since 1999, middle-age white Americans with only a high-school degree have seen a steep increase in “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol abuse. Although opioids are not the primary cause of rising mortality rates, the authors say they are certainly adding “fuel to the flames.” Additional research finds that half of all working-age, unemployed men in America are taking pain medication—and two-thirds of them are taking prescription painkillers. Meanwhile, for middle-age white Americans of all educational backgrounds the average mortality rates from heart disease and cancer have slowed to just 1 percent per year.

Overall, rising mortality rates were most pronounced in states with large rural populations like Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, though the authors find this to be both a rural and urban phenomenon. It is also, for reasons uncertain, a racial phenomenon. The study finds a decline in mortality rates among black and Hispanic Americans, despite seeing little difference in their income profiles. The authors also discover a much different pattern in Europe than in the United States. Not only are Europe’s mortality rates declining for all education groups; they are declining the fastest among the less-educated residents.

The study spotlights just how precarious the lives of less-educated, white, middle-age Americans have become in recent decades—and how precarious they must perceive their lives to be.