OP-ED: What's the matter with white working-class men?


What's the matter with white working-class men?

Middle-aged white American males are dying in droves. The culprits? Suicide and drug- and alcohol-related ailments. That's according to a new study by Princeton University economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case.

Deaton and Case found that the mortality rate among whites ages 45 to 54 with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. "Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this," Deaton told the New York Times.

Has America become too inhospitable to working-class whites? Are there policy solutions? Or is this cultural rot? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

Ben Boychuk: Let's get one point out of the way, because somebody will suggest it: No, Barack Obama isn't solely to blame for the rising suicide rate among middle-aged whites.

It's true that the decline in labor force participation has reached new record highs during Obama's tenure. Right now, about 20 million working-age Americans are unemployed and don't want a job. But this is a problem that extends beyond a single presidential administration or mere red-blue political divisions.

If you delve into Deaton and Case's study, you'll find a host of factors involved in the rising mortality rate. Personal and financial stress is a big one, obviously. But they also point to a three-decade rise in disability claims. More and more people say they are too sick to work.

And if you look at the past 15 years, the picture becomes clearer. In 1999, 8 percent of those in their early 50s cited disability as their primary reason for not working. By 2014, it was 11 percent. And the trend line shows no sign of turning downward.

What happens to a society in which subsisting on government disability payments becomes normal? Well, we're getting a taste of it now.

So why not reform the disability insurance system, maybe tighten up some of the criteria, and weed out the usual "waste, fraud and abuse" that we're so fond of blaming?

Because the problem isn't just a government program or even the welfare state; it's a profound shift in the culture and the whole global economy.

A high school diploma is worthless, and many college degrees are headed that direction. Family disintegration remains widespread. Religion, once a source of community support, continues to wane as more Americans identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious." And pop culture is a wasteland. Nihilism is in the very air we breathe.

When you have nothing to believe in but yourself, and you're life is a misery, then it's hardly surprising that many men — unemployed, childless, aimless — turn to booze, drugs, video games, porn or whatever else dulls the pain.

Our problem isn't just a lack of meaningful work. It's the lack of meaning, period. Does anyone really think overhauling the tax code or expanding the welfare state can fix that?

Joel Mathis: No, Barack Obama isn't responsible for the rising death rate among middle-aged whites. But Ronald Reagan might be.

It was under Reagan, after all, that a staggering rise in income inequality among Americans became more pronounced and stayed that way. Simply put: For more than 30 years, the rich among us have been getting richer while the rest of us have been treading water, financially. That widening gap can be attributed, in large part, to a series of Republican-led policy innovations since the Gipper, including massive tax cuts for the rich and laws that make it more difficult for unions to organize and represent the interests of workers.

Now, the standard Republican response when Democrats mention this is to accuse Democrats of "envy" or of perpetrating "class warfare." What they ignore, though, is that inequality isn't just a source of jealousy — it has tangible effects on public health.

In March, for example, the New York Times reported on a University of Wisconsin study which showed that people were more likely to die before the age of 75 in counties where income inequality is more pronounced.

"The researchers think that places where wealthy residents can essentially buy their way out of social services may have less cohesion and investment in things like education and public health that we know affect life span," the Times reported. "There is also literature suggesting that it's stressful to live among people who are wealthier than you. That stress may translate into mental health problems or cardiac disease for lower-income residents of unequal places."

So policy affects income inequality. Income inequality then turns around and affects policy. (If rich people don't need that public hospital, it's less likely to get built.) And policy affects lifespans. In the meantime, the rich blame the poor for being poor — or for living lives that lack "meaning" — and get off the hook for creating a world that's more difficult for the rest of us to live in.

It's tougher than ever to get ahead in America. If the strain affects our health, is that really any big surprise?

— Ben Boychuk ( is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis ( is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: