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Middle-aged White Folks are Dying at Unprecedented Rates

The headline says it all: White people, middle-class white people are dying at a rate not seen before. They are dying from liver failure, heart attacks and strokes, from alcoholism, drug overdoses and suicide. Other groups like the elderly, middle-age Blacks and Hispanics are all showing declines in death rates.

These data come from a Princeton University study looking at mortality rates since 1999. The findings surprised the authors of the paper as much as they are surprising everyone who’s seen the numbers. There’s a nice summary of the research here.

The age group most compellingly affected is those who were between the ages of 45 and 54. Educational levels were a factor with those just completing high school (or less) faring the worst but even having a college degree didn’t immunize one from the problems. In addition to dying, this cohort report higher levels of depression and despair, more chronic pain, inability to work, greater poverty and more just plain miserableness in their lives.

Actually, no one who has been charting life in America over the past half-century or so should be surprised by this pattern nor should we shy away from the reasons for it.

It began with Reagan. It is the natural outcome of thirty-plus years of the United States slowly stripping away the kinds of support systems that every other industrialized nation on the planet has been shoring up. Unlike the European Union, the folks “Down Under,” Canada, Japan, South Korea, here the safety net has been pulled out from under these folks, the opportunities for advancement have been systematically removed and the organizations that once gave them a voice like unions have been demonized.

When this group entered the work force life was generally improving, wages were reasonable and someone with a high school education could anticipate a decent paying job on an assembly line or in retail. Unions were strong, wages fair and benefits reasonable. The top earners made a bit more than those in the middle class but the disparity was nothing like it has become.

Housing was affordable, the banks hadn’t yet become the grotesque monstrosities they are today. Taxes were higher but the rates more progressive ensuring that the wealthy paid their share. Government could provide support for the thousand little things that make life livable from educational programs, funding for science, the environment, roads and transportation, parks…

But as Republicans, with their no-tax, weak government, pro-oligarchy, hyper-individualistic message, slowly took control the decline began. Exasperatingly, it has been accompanied by a well-funded, richly-written false narrative that has turned these poor bastards into their own worst enemy.

They are the Tea Party. These are the people who, recognizing the terrible shape their lives have become but failing to grasp why, have morphed into the craziest irrational voting-block this country has ever seen. They support the most insane positions imaginable.

They hate Obamacare; they’ve become virulently anti-union; they undercut women’s rights and health care. They’re against funding science; they’ll back any candidate who promises to cut taxes on the wealthy; they’re pro-business, pro- big oil; they deny climate change — and in so doing, they undercut themselves at every turn.

They’ve become convinced that their misery stems from the left, mainly the Black Dude in the White House. They think teachers unions are causing the decline in education instead of slashed school budgets. They’ve convinced themselves that cutting corporate tax rates will create jobs, that increasing the minimum wage will strangle the economy. They’ve bought Randian BS, lapped up Kochian visions and twisted their image of government, like some frightened, confused child who is convinced there’s a ghost under her bed.

Unhappily, it’s going to take a long time to undo this mess and it likely will require that a lot more of these poor bastards die because they’re completely refractory to learning what the real cause of their misery is.

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