The mortality rate of the least educated American white population, aged 45-54 years old, has risen in an unprecedented manner over the course of the last decade, according to a study released Monday, Nov. 2, by the National Academy of Sciences. The trend is even more dramatic because at the same time, this rate continued to decline for black and Latino minorities. At the phenomenon’s origin lies a rise in suicide and in disease linked to drugs and alcohol among the white population. This study is the result of the work of two economists from Princeton University in New Jersey: Angus Deaton, who recently won the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, and Anne Case, who also happens to be his wife.
The two scholars arrived at these conclusions by chance when they studied the potential correlation between the sense of happiness in a given population and the suicide rate. In reviewing the statistics for mortality and morbidity, they found that the death rate for the white population which did not pursue education beyond high school had risen between 1999 and 2013 to 134 deaths per 100,000 individuals. “This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States: no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,” say the two researchers. The decreased death rate for the white population saw a reversal in the 1960s due chiefly to the explosion of tobacco consumption, but “only HIV/AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,” notes Deaton.
Although the trend has reversed for the white population, the mortality rate (415 out of 100,000) is still lower than that of the black population (581 out of 100,000). However, it is now much higher than that of the Latino population (262 out of 100,000). For whites who have attended college, the mortality rate tends to be lower, while it rises by 22 percent when education is not pursued after high school. The study also clearly demonstrates that this is a generational phenomenon. Thus, the mortality rate for non-Latino whites aged 65-74 years has continued to decline by 2 percent between 1999 and 2013.
The explanation of this increased mortality among the least educated 45-54-year-olds is even more troubling than the phenomenon itself. The study demonstrates that any rise can’t be linked with a simple rise in the number of heart disease or diabetes-related deaths. It results not only from a surge in suicide, but also from the strong increase in diseases linked to drug and alcohol usage. This causality of ethnic origin has seen a dramatic return during the last decade. Thus in 1999, the mortality rate linked to alcohol and drugs in the black population was higher than that for whites, but in 2013 we see exactly the opposite.
The study also shows that contrary to the youngest and oldest groups, those aged 45-54 complain much more frequently of having pain. Between 2011 and 2013, one-third described suffering chronic pain and one out of seven had sciatica, symptoms that follow a curve parallel to increased mortality.
The Future for Retirees
At the same time, mental illness and disability pension claims have continued to rise. The explosion of disability claims, which rose 30 percent during the crisis, constitutes one of the factors explaining the fall in the participation rate in the job market, which, in the United States, fell to its lowest level since the 1970s.
The financial factor is also very present in the study of Deaton and Case, who notably invoke the fact that the famous “American dream” is increasingly difficult to realize for this category of the population. Now they state that household income where the head of the household has not pursued studies beyond high school has fallen 19 percent between 1999 and 2013. “Although the epidemic of pain, suicide and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible,” the authors state. “After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents,” they add.
The study also highlights the growing anxiety about the pension payments that this population hopes to receive in a few years. “The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm,” the authors indicate, pointing out that the impact of this “financial insecurity” linked to future pension amounts could play a role in this unprecedented rise in the mortality rate.
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