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The Ballad of the White Working Class
Something has gone profoundly wrong with the American dream.
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The concept of the “underclass” stretches back to economist Gunnar Myrdal and his 1962 book, Challenge to Affluence. According to Myrdal, this subset of the population consists of “a class of unemployed, unemployables, and underemployed, who are more and more hopelessly set apart from the nation at large and do not share in its life, its ambitions, and its achievements.” As both a condition and an attitude, the underclass is a state of citizenship defined by permanent marginalization and exile from the economic mainstream, which gives rise to a collective sense of hopelessness.
We are witnessing the devolution of the white working class into the American underclass, a process of social disintegration that has occurred inexorably and largely out of sight. These are people who feel left behind, forsaken by a technocratic system that forces them to live on the periphery of society because they’re not in custody of the credentials that are treated as an indication of social value, which precludes them from an economy that reserves its rewards for those with higher education.
This isn’t just a matter of polarization or prosperity. The little-known consequences have been staggering. For nearly two decades now, the white working class has been dying at an unprecedented rate—a change unique to the United States. No other country saw a comparable turnaround in any demographic, and this midlife mortality reversal has been confined to white people. By 2015, so many working-age white Americans were dying that life expectancy in the wealthiest country in the world fell for the first time in nearly a century.
It’s impossible to overstate how extraordinary that is. One of the most defining features of the 20th century was the decline in all-cause mortality in literally every demographic. Life expectancy at birth has improved remarkably among wealthy countries. But 2015 was not an anomaly. Life expectancy in the U.S. fell again in 2016, and for a third time in 2017, marking the longest downturn since the Spanish flu wiped out more than 50 million people a century ago. The decline hasn’t stopped: U.S. life expectancy has fallen every year since 2015, pulled down by an extraordinary spike in deaths among working class white Americans. Notably, while countries all over the world saw life expectancy rebound during the second year of the pandemic after the arrival of vaccines, the U.S. did not.
The causes of death that have risen the most among the white working class tell a story. They’re self-inflicted: Drug overdoses,1 suicides, and alcoholic liver disease. Deaths from these causes have increased between 56% and 387%, depending on the age cohort, over the past two decades. Princeton economics professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton have described this phenomenon as “deaths of despair,” which are predominantly impacting Americans living in the suburban and rural manufacturing and mining communities of the heartland.2
Between 1999 and 2017, more than 600,000 extra deaths — that is, deaths in excess of the demographically predicted number — occurred among white people aged 45 to 54. In 2017 alone, the number of excess deaths in this demographic was 158,000. For a sense of scale, consider that in the United States, no less than 675,000 people have died of HIV since the first cases were reported back in 1981.
This is a mortality rate far in excess of the covid pandemic, and it’s happening every year. But unlike the covid pandemic, it shows no signs of slowing down, and neither the magnitude of the crisis nor its urgency have been addressed in a substantive way. What makes this issue all the more pressing is precisely that it isn’t more pressing. It’s not even well-known.
Education is Central to This Story
When a person dies and a death certificate is filled out, one of the boxes asks about the deceased’s education. This is how we know another stunning fact: The increase in deaths of despair has been almost entirely among working class whites without a four-year college degree (37.9% of the U.S. working-age population), while mortality rates among college-educated Americans have fallen. The dichotomy, which stretches back to the early 1990s, is jarring.
For those with less than a bachelor’s degree, death rates rose by 25%; but for those with a bachelor’s degree, mortality dropped by 40%. This has led to an 8.5-year difference in life expectancy. There’s a sharp contrast in quality of life reported as well. Research has shown that Americans without a degree are experiencing higher levels of pain and mental distress as their employment opportunities and communities decline amid overall prosperity.3
It’s no secret that most working-class people in rural America do not go to college or finish school.4 The reasons why are complex and varied, but it has a lot to do with culture. As Chris Offutt wrote in a 2016 Harper’s piece:
Morehead State was less than twelve miles from where I grew up, but most colleges are farther away than country people want to go. In addition, higher education is regarded with suspicion, a potential means to “get above your raisings”—that is, to forget who you are, where you came from, and who your people are. What begins as cultural pride evolves into an actual fear of education. A college graduate is widely perceived as the kind of person who takes advantage of others, who believes that visible signs of wealth are important, who might turn snobby with a little money.5
The acceleration of technology and the fact that most of rural America qualifies as an “education desert” threatens the already precarious heartland economies by widening their socioeconomic drift from urban America. And the skills gap is becoming formidable. Many rural counties that have seen a surge in deaths of despair have been hit hardest by a dying industrial economy as manufacturers outsource jobs abroad and replace blue-collar workers with robots and computer-assisted processes.
For those who don’t acquire the right pedigree, the cosmopolitan elite and its burgeoning, high-tech information economy remain out of reach. While the well-educated move to the fast-growing cities to pursue select opportunities, those with less education are left behind in the countryside, often in towns where the economy is running on fumes and opportunities are few and far between. As David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press points out, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: In rural America there’s no easy access to education past high school, which means the workforce lacks training, which means there’s not much reason for a manufacturing company or software developer to come to town, which means few well-paying jobs, which means more poverty, which means it’s difficult for people to come up with the money to go to college, and the circle just continues.
Between January 2010 and January 2019, nearly 16 million new jobs were created, but fewer than 3 million were for those without a four-year degree, and only 55 thousand were for those with no education past high school. Stable work is becoming harder and harder to find for less educated Americans, who now struggle to get by in the automated, low-wage, service-oriented economy, where there is little potential for personal or professional growth. Employment duration has decreased. Hours aren’t guaranteed. Gig work and day labor in lieu of manufacturing jobs are the new norm and rarely include benefits like health insurance and full worker protections.
In the United States, there are now large corporations that supply the cleaners and drivers and security and attendants and other laborers who were once employed by the companies and firms they’re contracted out to, which robs these people of the pride that comes with being part of a shared enterprise. With outsourcing as the new norm, executives have come to see low-wage workers not as colleagues but as expenses.
Consider Amazon. In 2020, Bloomberg reported that the behemoth company was opening U.S. warehouses at a rate of about one a day. But in the process, they’ve transformed the logistics industry “from a career destination with the promise of middle-class wages into entry-level work that’s just a notch above being a burger flipper or convenience store In cashier.” Few of those employed within Amazon fulfillment centers actually work for the company. The only visible difference between the “temps” and employees is often the color of their badges, but the working conditions, wages, and hours are far worse for those who’re outsourced. A Bloomberg analysis found that in community after community where Amazon sets up shop, warehouse wages tend to fall. “In many cases, Amazon quickly becomes the largest logistics player in these counties, so its size and lower pay likely pull down the average.”
The days when a janitor with only a high school education could one day become CEO are over. The janitor and CEO exist in separate worlds, the world of the highly educated and the world of the less educated, and the barriers to entry of the former are all but insurmountable for those in the latter. Not that the janitor is even part of the company anymore. He’s outsourced. As the economist Nicholas Bloom put it, “He is not invited to the holiday party.”
The Loss of a Way of Life
For the approximately 66 million white workers without college degrees between the ages of 25 and 64 years, the purchasing power of their wages has declined by 13% since 1979 while per capita income increased 85% over the same period. Given that real hourly earnings usually struggle to increase more than 1% annually, our recent 3.6% decline — the fastest pace of decline in 40 years — is an earthquake.
Among other wealthy nations, this depreciation in wages and employment has been unique to the United States. The cultural ripple effects have been well-documented, and include depressing marriage rates as men’s appeal as partners has fallen in tandem with their earnings. Without a stable family life, these men are more isolated, with fewer of the social buffers that might inoculate them against suicide or drug abuse. As a result, the rates for both have gone up.
White working class women are also suffering. They, too, are experiencing record levels of disability and stalled progress against heart disease. Women have always had lower rates of suicide, alcoholic liver disease, and drug overdoses, whether or not they have a four-year degree. But that has changed since the late 1990s. Working-class women without college degrees are dying from despair in about equal numbers as men.
These deaths of despair can’t be attributed solely to deteriorating economic circumstances, but a lack of jobs and meaningful work are certainly contributing factors. The past three decades have seen Americans without a four-year degree losing value in our information-based economy as their skills and experience matter less and less. It should come as no surprise that fewer continue to seek employment. Even before the pandemic, approximately 20% of men between their early 20s and early 60s, or roughly 20 million men, had left the labor force—three times the percentage in 1960, and worse than the depths of the recent Great Recession in the late 2000s. Notably, it’s the locales where a smaller fraction of the working-age population are employed that have the highest number of deaths of despair.
It’s also important to understand that the social disintegration of the white working class is not a people problem; this is not about a decline in work ethic, or a rise in hedonism. It has to do with the inexorable erosion of the structure and meaning that once defined working-class life. This is a story about an America divided geopolitically, but also by class and education, hopes and dreams. Our geographically disparate economies have been entrenched for decades now,6 and while this has led to different ways of living, it has also produced different identities. Humans have an innate social need to belong to a larger group or cause from which they might find meaning and purpose. When these needs are met, we feel a profound sense of well-being. This shapes how we live, contributing to self-esteem and pride.
As the economy has evolved under rapid technological change and globalization, metropolitan areas have grown and expanded at the expense of older industrial towns. This has led to a collapse in communities, resulting in many working class Americans losing integral aspects of their identity. These are people who once enjoyed lifetime employment from the same company. That kind of long-term occupational relationship is fundamental to someone’s self-conception. Often, entire towns would be deeply tied to a central union employer, be it Sears or Ford or General Electric, and this relationship would provide much of the solidarity essential to maintaining a sense of belonging.7 Union membership has rapidly declined since mid-century,8 but there was a time not too long ago when belonging to a union was a form of social capital that working-class people depended on to represent their economic interests.
This way of life has been utterly upended by deindustrialization, which has resulted in the rapid decline of unionization and the disproportionate power of capital relative to labor. Automation allows companies to produce more with fewer workers, while entire industries have moved abroad to lower their costs or have closed in the face of competition from China. Princeton economics professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton note that deterioration in employment opportunities and detachment from the labor force bring miseries that go beyond the loss of earnings. “Jobs are not just the source of money,” they write, “they are the basis for the rituals, customs and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.”
American culture is as harsh a judge as it’s ever been. If you’re prospects are on the decline — if you’re out of work or not making much money, if you didn’t go to college or haven’t started a family — external factors outside your control are never taken into account. Rather, there must be something wrong with you. Our media class, safely ensconced in elite coastal sanctuaries, has a habit of flaunting hope with self-assured proclamations that prosperity awaits if you work for it, implying that a lack of prospects must be your own fault.
Now consider the culture of a place like Appalachia. Pride is everything for working class people; they’re proud of their work, but also of owning a car and a home, of paying their bills, of providing for their families, of getting by on their own.9 French sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out more than a century ago that despair and then suicide result when a person’s material and social circumstances fall below his or her expectations. People who don’t expect to ever obtain what they want, or have already lost it, also lose the desire to keep breathing.10 And when pride, dignity, and a sense of purpose are taken away, poisonous ameliorators become very enticing ways of numbing the pain. Suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease: Each goes up where joblessness does. Addiction thrives when people and communities do not.
Amid overall prosperity, the white working class has languished in a steady economic and social breakdown that’s been largely ignored. With the rise of neoliberal globalization, old identities made possible by employment in the old economy have faded, replaced with new ones rooted in resentment toward undocumented immigrants, who many believe are replacing the mores and culture of their hometowns, and cosmopolitan elites, who routinely treat flyover country with scorn.
An in-depth study by the Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute sought to answer what factors motivated white working-class voters to support Donald Trump by a margin of roughly two to one. Among the study’s findings:
Only 17% of white working-class Americans who still live in their hometown believe the quality of life in their hometown has gotten better since their childhood days.
A majority (54%) of white working-class Americans say drug abuse and addiction are major problems in their community
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of white working-class Americans believe the American way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s.
More than two-thirds (68%) of white working-class Americans — along with a majority (55%) of the public overall — believe the U.S. is in danger of losing its culture and identity.
Nearly half (48%) of white working-class Americans say, “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”
I think it’s safe to say that things haven’t appreciably improved on these fronts. And it’s easy to see why someone like Donald Trump would appeal to these voters. His campaign rallies often run on a shared sense of marginalization, betrayal, and anger, and he’s as confident as they come, always certain of his ability to fix their problems and “make America great again.” That message, though much-maligned, still resonates brilliantly. Trump knows this, just as he knows his tough stance on trade has deepened the bonds with workers who believe they were hurt by free-trade deals. As of 2020, manufacturers employed at least a quarter of the workforce in only 320 counties. Ninety-five percent of them went for Trump. Furthermore, Democrats have either ignored these people, continuing their decades-long hemorrhaging of working-class voters, or they’ve treated them with derision, acknowledging their existence only as the butt of jokes, satire, and stereotype.
Trump tapped into white working-class resentment, and he rode that anger to the White House. He could very well do it again.
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Over the past two decades, rural white populations in the U.S. have experienced an increase in midlife drug overdose deaths of 749%. The over prescription of opioids in the 2000s created a perfect storm. As the medical community began to prioritize self-reported pain, opioid manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma began targeting declining blue-collar communities, where manual labor and pain often coincide.
One recent study found that deaths of despair combined with metabolic and cardiac deaths exceed by 4-fold the next important cause of death, cancer. And when primary liver cancers caused by alcoholism (50%) and lung cancers caused by smoking (90%) are included, the total number of deaths exceeds the remaining cancers by nearly 5-fold.
Of the drug overdose deaths since the introduction of OxyContin, 90% have been among those without college degrees.
A majority (54%) of the white working class view getting a college education as a risky gamble, while only 44% say it’s a smart investment.
In 1974, the Charlie Daniels Band released “Long Haired Country Boy,” a song with a third stanza that encapsulates the rural view of social class:
“A poor girl wants to marry
A rich girl wants to flirt
A rich man goes to college
But a poor man goes to work”
In 2016, the Bookings Institute found that the 2,584 counties Trump won were responsible for just 36% of the country’s economic output, whereas the 472 counties Hillary Clinton won made up nearly two-thirds of the nation’s aggregate economy. An analysis of 2020 reveals much the same: The 2,547 counties that Trump carried represented just 29% of the economy, while Biden’s 509 counties accounted for 71% of America’s economic output.
“Many people used to associate the meaning of their life with what their corporation or institution was doing,” says Angus Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics.
Only 14% of white working-class Americans report living in a household with someone who is a member of a labor union.
Says Chris Offutt, who grew up in Appalachia, “I’ve seen mothers wait for an empty grocery line in order to hide their use of food stamps.”