'Deaths of despair': Economists' work reveals the grim forces preying on American workers

'Deaths of despair': Economists' work reveals the grim forces preying on American workers

Bashing European countries and their social and economic programs is a popular pastime among the “American exceptionalists” in right-wing media. But when economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton compare the American working class to the working class in European countries, it is U.S. workers — not European workers — they describe as suffering from “deaths of despair.” And journalists David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson, in an op-ed for the New York Times, draw on Case and Deaton’s data to explain why U.S. workers are more likely to feel worried, pessimistic or stressed out than their counterparts in other developed countries.


Leonhardt and Thompson note that Case and Deaton’s research on “deaths of despair,” first published in 2015, found that “many white working-class Americans in their forties and fifties were dying of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse.”

“But as Case and Deaton continued digging into the data,” the Times writers explain, “it became clear that the grim trends didn’t apply only to middle-aged whites. Up and down the age spectrum, deaths of despair have been surging for people without a four-year college degree.”

Case and Deaton address the problem in their new book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” and the economists view working class life as being harder in the U.S. than it is in any other developed country.

According to Case, “European countries have faced the same kind of technological change we have, and they’re not seeing the people killing themselves with guns or drugs or alcohol. There is something unique about the way the U.S. is handling this.”

Leonhardt and Thompson offer some reasons why U.S. workers without a college degree are more prone to despair than their counterparts in other developed countries.

“Inequality has risen more in the United States — and middle-class incomes have stagnated more severely — than in France, Germany, Japan or elsewhere,” Leonhardt and Thompson observe. “Large corporations have increased their market share, and labor unions have shriveled — leaving workers with little bargaining power. Outsourcing has become the norm, which means that executives often see low-wage workers not as colleagues, but as expenses.”

To make matters worse, Leonhardt and Thompson assert, the U.S. suffers from “by far the world’s most expensive health care system”— which “acts as a tax on workers” and “fails to keep many people healthy” either physically or mentally.

“It’s not surprising that some other causes of death — in addition to suicide, alcoholism and drug overdose — have also started rising for Americans without a college degree,” Leonhardt and Thompson note. “Heart disease is the most significant, exacerbated by obesity, drinking and drug use.”

After offering elaborate details on the problems that are plaguing Americans without a college degree, Leonhardt and Thompson offer some possible solutions.

“The federal government should do a better job of keeping big business from maximizing profits at the expense of their workers by enforcing antitrust laws and encouraging new kinds of labor unions,” Leonhardt and Thompson recommend. “Governments at all levels should help more people earn college degrees, both four-year degrees like BAs and meaningful vocational degrees.”

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