The decline in life expectancy and health among less-educated white Americans is often attributed to “deaths of despair”—those from conditions like substance abuse and suicide. (Suicides, the CDC reported last week, are up nearly 30 percent since 1999.) The cause is often attributed to “cumulative distress,” as Princeton’s Anne Case and Angus Deaton have speculated.
“The failure of life to turn out as expected [is] consistent with people compensating through other risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol and drug use,” they wrote recently.
A new study has confirmed that low-income Americans are, in fact, despairing. The authors of this paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, relied on a survey called MIDUS—Midlife in the United States—that interviewed American adults about their mental health in 1995–1996 and again in 2011–2014. They found that for the poorest whites in the sample, mental health consistently declined between those two times, suggesting low-income white Americans became less happy over the years. Meanwhile, higher incomes were “consistently associated with less distress and greater well-being,” the authors, Noreen Goldman of Princeton and Dana Glei and Maxine Weinstein of Georgetown University, write.