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America’s killing fields

from David Ruccio


We don’t need Louisiana Detective Rodie Sanchez coming out of retirement to solve the crime against the members of the working-class currently being committed in the United States.

We already know many of the details of the crime. We also know the identities of both the victims and the serial killer. The only real mystery is, what’s the country going to do about it?  

The investigation itself is being painstakingly carried out by Anne Case and Agnus Deaton (pdf). They show, with abundant statistics, that mortality trends in the United States run counter to those in other rich countries, where they have been steadily declining for decades.


The headlines, of course, have been about one group—middle-age white non-Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—whose mortality rates, especially those attributed to “deaths of despair” (drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality), increased from 1998 through 2015.* The focus in on that group for a number of reasons, including the fact that increasing rates for them (as against blacks and nonwhite Hispanics) have all but erased the racial gap in mortality among non-college-educated Americans—and, of course, because of the prominence of “white working-class” voters in explanations of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

But we also need to go beyond the headlines and understand that, while rates for different ethnic and racial groups in the United States have moved in opposite directions in recent decades, the rates for working-class blacks and Hispanics are still very high—and, in recent years (as can be seen, in the case of blacks, in the chart at the top of the post), they’ve also begun to rise.

That’s the real crime story. All three groups within the American working-class—whites, blacks, and Hispanics—are being killed at abnormally high rates compared to the populations of other rich countries.

And the serial killer? Case and Deaton have a much more difficult time working in this area. That’s because they follow the headlines and emphasize the differences in the long-term trend rates and lose sight of the larger picture. So, they discount the role played by income inequality and, instead, endorse Charles Murray’s story about the decline in traditional American virtues among working-class whites (which I wrote about back in 2012).

The fact is, the labor-market factors identified by Case and Deaton—which have negatively affected whites, blacks, and Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—have become more severe as inequality has soared and the social safety net ripped apart in the United States from the early 1970s onward. The upward trend for whites and the narrowing of the racial gap, as significant as they are, shouldn’t hide from view the more general problem (as I wrote about in 2015) of a large and growing gap between the life expectancies (for both men and women) of those at the top and bottom of the distribution of income in the United States.

American TV is currently captivating viewers with stories of people accused of committing horrific acts. It’s time, however, to focus on the story of an economic system that has created its own killing fields.


*Mortality increases for whites in midlife have also been paralleled by morbidity increases, including deteriorations in self-reported physical and mental health, and rising reports of chronic pain.

  1. March 28, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    Yes very important stuff. I took on Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” in 2012, via a book review entitled “Who ‘Done’ It? Who Did in the ‘White Working Class?’ They Did It to Themselves, according to Charles Murray. And did a posting about it at the Daily Kos in the wake of the riot at Middlebury College when Murray appeared, here at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2017/03/18/1644829/-Coming-Apart-Charles-Murray-the-White-Working-Class-and-the-Middlebury-College-Riot

    I think that James A. Morone added something to this debate in 2003 when he wrote “Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History.” Morone said it is a long-standing American tradition to blame the individual – character – when things go wrong,especially economically wrong, rather than the system. This goes for single issue crusades such as the old temperance one, and against abortion…only in rare periods does the system’s failures loom large: the Great Depression is one, but 2008-2009 never quite rose to that level …and notice Congressional Republicans blamed the “do-good” impulse of Democrats to make mortgages available to – in their view – character deadbeats – for the crisis. The severe rise in drug overdose deaths – up now in the range of 40,000 plus per year – especially hitting rural red America hard…offers another opportunity to moralize …or perhaps create the full employment economy that has not reached the demographics under consideration here.

    I’ve been to public presentations from officials in such areas – rural red America – and their casual explanations of the current surge in drug overdose deaths is unconvincing…lot’s of opportunity to deflect from the lack of opportunity, meaning and structure in the job market. A job market which, as a number of good writers in our special edition on Trumponomics are pointing out…is one which has undergone the greatest upheaval since the seminal events of the first Industrial Revolution, 1790-1850, Great Britain.

  2. patrick newman
    March 29, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Since WWII we have tended to think about the economy in Emile Coue terms – “everyday and in everyway i am getting better and better”. Increasing inequality can still mean those at the bottom are becoming a little better off so what is missing when figures suggest improving living standards cut across income classes (except for the period 2008 onwards where in the UK living standards have stagnated). Is there a process that official figures do not reveal. For example the official inflation figures are criticised as not reflecting the actual impact of rising prices on low and lower income households?

    • Tom Welsh
      March 29, 2017 at 1:19 pm

      That’s what John Michael Greer calls “the religion of progress”. He suggests that the religion of 21st century America is not Christianity but Progress; hence the almost superstitious horror when anyone dares to question that “every day and every way we are all getting better and better”. And, if someone does conclusively prove that things are getting worse in some respect, that is rationalized by saying that maybe that particular aspect of life was always much overrated anyway.

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