Epidemic of Deaths of Middle-Aged Whites Linked to Economic Insecurity

A new study showing a stunning rise in middle-aged white mortality is a terrible indictment of national economic policies that have ignored long-term unemployment of older workers, the loss of traditional pensions, and rampant age discrimination in employment.

Two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who recently won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics,and Anne Case, have published a study  in which they document a “remarkable”  increase in mortality for whites aged 45 to 54  after a long period of decline. By contrast, the authors write, the mortality rate has continued to decline for middle-aged whites in other rich countries and also for blacks and Hispanics in the United States.*

The authors estimate that a half a million deaths of middle-aged whites would have been avoided from 1999‒2013 if the mortality rate had continued to decline at its previous (1979‒1998) rate of about two percent per year. They compare this loss  to the number of lives lost in the U.S. AIDS epidemic.

Middle-aged whites are dying in a misery-fueled “epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse, alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”

The authors say the reasons for the epidemic are only “partly understood” but they point to several possible factors, including  “economic insecurity” and “widening wealth inequality.”  They specifically note the U.S. has moved primarily to defined-contribution pensions, which are subject to stock market risk, while, traditional defined benefit pensions are still the norm in Europe.  A traditional pension, along with lifetime savings and Social Security, once were the cornerstone of retirement in the United States.

In my book, Betrayed: The legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace,” I discuss the devastating impact of the Great Recession and chronic unemployment due to age discrimination on the health and welfare of older workers.  While ignoring these problems, I note, Congress enacted policies that encouraged the adoptionof risky defined contribution pensions – also known as 401K plans – and did nothing to stop the decline of the traditional defined benefit pensions. Studies show that  half of older Americas today are economically vulnerable due to a loss of savings in the recession, their  inability to find work as a result of age discrimination, and the lack of an employer-sponsored pension.

The authors predict more problems ahead if U.S. workers “perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.”

Deaton and Case  report that all education groups among middle class whites saw increases in mortality  but  those with less education saw the most marked increased. The mortality rate for whites aged 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. That’s a 22 percent increase!

The study states the epidemic may account for large increase in Social Security disability claims as well as the “recent otherwise puzzling decrease in labor force participation in the United States, particularly among women.”

The authors indicate the epidemic can be brought under control and “its survivors may have a healthy old age. However, addictions are hard to treat and pain is hard to control, so those currently in midlife may be a ‘lost generation’ whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.”

There is overwhelming research that links workplace stress and joblessness to mental and physical health problems. The  American Psychological Association reported in 2011 that the U.S. may be “on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis.” The APA found that Americans rely on unhealthy behaviors to manage the stress, noting that 33.8 percent of Americans adults are obese and one in ten suffers from depression.

Deaton and Case based their study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,  primarily upon an analysis of public health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Somewhat incredibly,the CDC didn’t notice the trend.

* Note: Middle-aged blacks still have a higher mortality rate than whites — 581 per 100,000, compared with 415 for whites. The rate for middle-aged Hispanics is  lower than for middle-aged whites at 262 per 100,000.

4 thoughts on “Epidemic of Deaths of Middle-Aged Whites Linked to Economic Insecurity”

  1. Add student loans to age discrimination and the increase in death is perfectly clear. I am a poster child for this problem. Social Security is my ONLY income and government is taking 15% from my benefits because I have delinquent student loans I am unable to pay. This puts my income at or below the poverty level. I am unable to make timely payments because I cannot obtain paying employment because of age discrimination. I have over 30 years experience in the real estate development-residential construction field including a General Contractors’ B licence – 15 years in accounting and 15 years in project management-purchasing. I also have good references.
    Age discrimination in employment is illegal under the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 – but in actual practice it is both legal and rampant. Pat Barnes does an excellent job in her book explaining how this came about. I am not alone – there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of seniors who wished to update their skills to find employment, now suffering from the same problem.
    Because employment in real estate and residential construction virtually disappeared during the recent recession, I decided to change to a non-cyclical occupation. I had always been fascinated by the law so I attended and graduated from an ABA approved law school. I erroneously believed that age discrimination would not be a problem in the legal field because there are so many older persons engaged in that profession –including the U.S. Supreme Court. I was wrong.
    I am not alone – there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of seniors, wishing to update their skills to obtain employment, now suffering from the same plight.

    Under the revised Bankruptcy Code of 2005, student loans are no longer dischargeable, but almost every other type of loan – mortgage loans, car loans, and even loans for luxurious, frivolous living – is. There is no statute of limitations on student loans; federal student loans die with the borrower’s death. And under the IRS Code, any forgiven or dischargeable loan becomes taxable income.

    It is doubtful that most voters are aware of this Catch 22 seniors are placed in. Up until age discrimination, I considered myself middle class – but now I am Poverty Class. The only way out of this dilemma is death. Otherwise, older persons have only living at a poverty level to look forward to. I, like many other seniors, need hearing aids and dental work, but Medicare does not cover these items and their cost is prohibitive on my poverty level income and many of our politicians in Washington D.C. don’t seem to care. And I WANT TO WORK – but you can only handle so many rejections.

    Alice Thomas, J.D.

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