Why White Working Class Americans Are Dying “Deaths of Despair”

Stephen Franklin

Behind the death spiral are growing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, liver diseases and cirrhosis. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

He was alone and mis­er­able, clean­ing up a strike sta­tion in Peo­ria, Illi­nois, where mem­bers of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW) had lived in the heat and the cold.

The UAW had just fold­ed its stand­off against Cater­pil­lar after years of strikes and was return­ing to work large­ly on the terms the com­pa­ny had first laid down.

We were losers when we came back from Viet­nam,” the mus­cu­lar, mid­dle-aged work­er told me near­ly two decades ago. We were losers when we put up this bat­tle and now we’ve lost the Amer­i­can dream.”

Work­ers like him have been los­ing more than their Amer­i­can dream. They’ve been los­ing their lives.

In 2015, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty econ­o­mists Anne Case and Angus Deaton point­ed out that the death rate of mid­dle-aged white Amer­i­cans had changed direc­tion and spurt­ed upward, revers­ing years of steady decline. The turn­around” was most­ly dri­ven by the deaths of those with a high school degree or less.

Delv­ing into ques­tions raised by that study, the econ­o­mists’ lat­est analy­sis finds that the grim real­i­ty has con­tin­ued to touch work­ing class white Amer­i­cans with lim­it­ed edu­ca­tions. And they pre­dict that these mid­dle-aged Amer­i­cans are like­ly to do much worse in old age than those cur­rent­ly old­er than 65.”

Behind the death spi­ral are grow­ing rates of sui­cide, drug and alco­hol poi­son­ing, liv­er dis­eases and cir­rho­sis, the econ­o­mists say. They liken the trend to the sud­den emer­gence of an ice­berg ris­ing up out the water.

Why?

What makes these mid­dle-aged white work­ers dif­fer­ent from black or Lati­no work­ers in the Unit­ed States in the same eco­nom­ic straits, or from work­ers in sim­i­lar­ly rich nations — all of whom show declin­ing death rates?

Indeed, as Deaton explained in a recent NPR inter­view, these white Amer­i­cans’ death rate now exceeds the rate for black Amer­i­cans as a whole.”

It’s as if poor­ly edu­cat­ed whites have now tak­en over from blacks as the low­est rung in terms of mor­tal­i­ty rates,” he said in the interview.

With­out pin­point­ing a spe­cif­ic rea­son, Deaton and Case sug­gest that the cycle of deaths of despair” comes from the col­lapse of jobs and ben­e­fits for these work­ers who then tum­ble into heart-break­ing prob­lems of phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al health, fam­i­ly dif­fi­cul­ties, drugs and just plain sur­vival. It is a por­trait of cas­cad­ing hope­less­ness, where work­ers go from stag­nat­ing wages to job­less­ness to drop­ping out of the job market.

If you’ve spent any time lis­ten­ing to work­ers’ heart­break for the last few decades as I have, how­ev­er, it is sad­den­ing to hear the shock and con­tro­ver­sy among experts over the econ­o­mists’ last two reports.

They could have heard the cries for help building.

All they need­ed to do was spend some time in a union hall, hang out at an unem­ploy­ment office, kill an after­noon in a bar or the gloomy liv­ing room of a work­er on the decline to hear the despair that fills work­ers’ hearts. But this is an espe­cial­ly Amer­i­can tragedy root­ed in our worka­day DNA.

An Amer­i­can dilem­ma because when good-pay­ing jobs began to van­ish for work­ers with a strong back, grit to do a tough or mind­less job and lit­tle edu­ca­tion besides high school, it’s like some­body stole their soul.

Many blue-col­lar work­ers, who once earned decent wages, thought they owned their jobs and what comes with it. But most Amer­i­can com­pa­nies don’t agree.

Many Amer­i­can work­ers once thought that their tire fac­to­ry, steel plant, paper mill or gar­ment mill would nev­er shut down and would be there for their chil­dren. But fate dealt a dif­fer­ent hand for work­ers and their fam­i­lies in Akron, Gary, Youngstown and across the South, where the gar­ment indus­try van­ished in a huff.

Trav­el­ing to these places and more, I real­ized that the most lethal wound from the hol­low­ing out of blue-col­lar jobs for Amer­i­can work­ers is the psy­chic one. Seek­ing out local union offi­cials in the 1980s at places where the jobs had dis­ap­peared, I found that some had died sud­den­ly or sunk into solemn silence. They had tried to stand tall, to help their rank and file move on, but there was lit­tle help from their union or their gov­ern­ment and the future kept on dark­en­ing all around them.

Help­ing these work­ers hasn’t been easy because so many blame them­selves and not the com­pa­nies or the Amer­i­can way of doing busi­ness for the mis­for­tune that sud­den­ly enveloped them. One day I talked a young work­er out of sui­cide. He’d failed to get back on his feet after his small auto parts plant in south­ern Michi­gan had shut down and blamed himself.

I’ve met with wives of strik­ing work­ers in Decatur, Illi­nois, who came togeth­er to help each oth­er because their hus­bands had slipped into silence or were numb­ing them­selves with alco­hol. I spent time with a grief-strick­en hus­band, whose union was on strike, and whose wife died dur­ing a demon­stra­tion. I spoke often with a labor-friend­ly priest in Decatur, who was stunned by the last words a wife gave her hus­band. He had returned unhap­pi­ly to work after a long-term lock­out and had been fatal­ly injured in a car acci­dent. She told her dying hus­band that at least he would not have to go back to the job.

Not long ago, I met with a mid­dle-aged work­er in Chica­go, the sole source of income for her fam­i­ly, who fell into a deep depres­sion when Mon­delez Inter­na­tion­al said it was mov­ing a large chunk of work­ers’ jobs at its Nabis­co bak­ery to Mexico.

Soon after she was laid off, a job opened up and she was called back. But her fears about her future had already tak­en a pow­er­ful toll.

After hear­ing news of the lay­offs, the woman had begun los­ing her hair until she was total­ly bald. The bak­ery work­ers union is fight­ing the move with a boy­cott of the firm’s Mex­i­can-made products.

Unaware of her mother’s sit­u­a­tion, her teenage daugh­ter was stunned when she returned home from col­lege and saw her moth­er. I was scared,” she said. I thought she had cancer.”

She didn’t have can­cer. But she had, indeed, suc­cumbed to an ill­ness — heartbreak.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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