The major piece of evidence, perhaps the most astonishing yet, showing the effect on ordinary Americans of our nation’s deepening economic and cultural decline was reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It reports a startling increase in the death rate of middle aged, predominantly middle and lower income white Americans, marking a stunning reversal of trends over many years, and the number is up by a lot.
According to the paper, authored by a team from Princeton University, the new trend suggests “a half million people are dead who should not be” over the last decade as a result. That’s a lot more than died in combat over that same span despite all the wars.
This is enormously important evidence and should be a blaring warning call to anyone invested in the future of this nation and its values.
The reports on the data have not suggested the deeper contributing problems involved. By saying the added deaths are due to drug and alcohol addiction and suicide is simply reporting the means of the deaths, not the motives, not the whys.
An analysis of health and mortality data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by a Nobel prize winning Princeton economist, Angus Deaton, and his wife, Dr. Anne Case, specified the causes of so many added deaths are not due to heart disease or diabetes, “but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids,” according to a report in Tuesday’s New York Times.
The problem seems most prevalent in poorly educated American whites. The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. By contrast, the death rate for middle-aged blacks and Hispanics continued to decline over the same period, as did the death rates for younger and older people of all races and ethnic groups.
A commentary that accompanied the article posted this week suggested that “pronounced racial differences in the prescription of opioid drugs and their misuse and a more pessimistic outlook among whites about their financial futures” may account for some of the problem, but not all of it.
(A day later came a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing a 59 percent increase in the use of prescription drugs, including anti-depressants and pain killers, among all U.S. adults since 2000).
There is nothing to suggest this trend is abating. On the contrary, the data is alarming about heroin and crystal meth addiction among children of these same Americans.
Here are some factors:
First, the economy remains stillborn where less educated and lower income white Americans live and work. For racial minorities stuck at the same level, the expectations are not as great. But for white Americans, being stuck at this level of poverty and stagnation bespeaks an acute dashing of hopes and expectations.
Second, these Americans have contributed to their own demise by a veritably suicidal insistence on rejecting advances in the kinds of social safety nets, which as the Medicaid funding component of the Affordable Care Act. In states like Virginia, for example, the right wing lawmakers blocking access to this care come from predominantly poorer white districts.
Third, there is the pernicious influence of a culture mediated through television and the Internet that rewards passivity and pointless living. The influence of dystopian scenarios of the eventual unraveling of all civilization, the glorification of the meaningless pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, and all the related evils of the postmodern rejection/denial of love and meaning in favor of power and pleasure contribute to this.
The panacea for this is supposed to be mind-numbing irrational religion, which deepens despair by its outlandish demands for choosing “faith” over reason.
The core values of humankind’s development over the centuries involve the cultivation of two interlinked forces, love and reason. Both are being denied by our dominant culture to a population that is supposed to focus only on bread and circuses, and its own deadly addictions.